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March 31, 2010 > Ohlone Humane Society: Partings

Ohlone Humane Society: Partings

By Nancy Lyon

It's been pretty quiet around our place these days, in the past month and a half we've lost two of our animal family members... "Sawtooth," a fine old gentleman cat we inherited from our daughter upon her divorce years ago and "Merlin the Grape," a sweet if challenged kitty that came to live with us when my sister died three years ago. Each was a special and unique addition to our furry brood that will be terribly missed, leaving a hole in our hearts.

It's strange that when a human member of your family dies there is usually sympathy and support; people gather to share your feelings of pain and loss. But except for those who have had an animal touch their lives and heart, when a nonhuman family member passes away, the response from even those close to you often lacks understanding of the depth of your feelings of grief.

Unless you are fortunate enough to have the support and sympathy of fellow animal lovers, you may be subjected to remarks from well-meaning, if insensitive, people such as "after all it was only an animal," or "you can always get a new one." As if companion animals are objects and that grieving over the death of very important being in your life who happens to not be human is somehow unnatural. Although you may be hurt by this lack of compassion and understanding, it might help to remember that these unfortunate people have obviously never experienced the joy and non-judgemental love of an animal. You can only feel regret that this wonderful life experience has been lost to them.

Psychologists recognize that the grief experienced by people over the death of a beloved animal follows the same stages as with our other loved ones. At first there is shock and denial whether death has been from a prolonged illness or has happened suddenly. There is a feeling of unreality and numbness. Next comes anger as feeling resurfaces, accompanied by a sense of guilt that you could have somehow prevented or contributed to the death. It's not unusual to try and strike a bargain with God or other powers-that-be if your pet could only be returned to you. Depression is the next step - life has changed and you feel intensely hopeless and alone. You think of your lost animal companion constantly, the joy and love you shared. You may seek places where you shared good times. Finally and slowly comes acceptance, you still mourn, but you move on.

If you have other animals, don't be surprised that they too may go through a period of grieving. Our other cat, Foxy, always the antagonist of our other poor cats, often making their lives difficult, is super clingy and moping around. Nonhuman animals are also complex beings that evidence signs of going through the same emotions as their human counterparts. Intense feelings of loss are not exclusive to the human experience - wolf packs have been documented to go through a period of intense mourning over the death of a pack member and elephants been shown to weep over the passing of a member of the herd.

The bond shared between animals can be very great and even those who may not have had the best relationship can experience stress and anxiety. They may become restless, anxious, and depressed with much sighing. They can experience a loss of sleep and digestive upset. They may seek out the lost companions and turn to you for more attention.

Maintaining as much normalcy in routine such as rest, exercise and diet will benefit all family members. While you may be inclined to give increased attention to your other animals, being overly solicitous may cause them to develop separation anxiety and other behavioral problems. Knowing that you are sharing the loss with them can help you to cope.

If you wish, it's OK to keep toys and other special mementos of their lives and the good times... and take comfort from them. Remembering the happiness, don't allow others to make you think that it is somehow not "right" to openly express your feelings about the wonderful relationship you shared.

Grieving is a normal process but with time it's all right to give yourself permission to heal. This member of your family was a unique and wonderful being who cannot be replaced. The time you shared was a special gift and no other will be ever exactly the same. But when the time is right, you may choose to bring another into your home and heart and somewhere, waiting at the fabled Rainbow Bridge, your faithful companion will approve.

"Until one has loved an animal, part of one's soul remains unawakened." ~ Anatole France

The University of California at Davis offers free grief counselling at:
Pet Loss Hot Line at 1-800-565-1526; 530-752-4200 TTD -- 6:30-9:30 p.m.
October-June: Monday-Thursday; July-September: Tuesday-Thursday

There are wonderful websites that can connect you with others who share your loss and grief and offer support: Loss Grief Support Website

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