I experienced my first pet loss a week ago when my dog, Liam, passed away very unexpectedly. The past week has been really difficult, and I have learned a lot about life and loss. Here is a list of the main lessons I have learned about pet grief while coping with Liam’s death. If you have just lost a pet, hopefully these can help as you move through a difficult time.
1. Face it and feel it. Losing anything you love is hard, and a beloved pet is no exception. With any loss, it’s tempting to distract yourself to avoid the difficult feelings. There are many avenues in which to do this, including food, drugs, work, keeping busy, checking out, etc, and each person has their own preferred method. However, my experience is that these distractions only delay the grief process. Instead, let the difficult feelings come up, sit with them, and let them pass. Losing a pet is really hard, and it’s okay to be sad. If you feel like crying, cry. If you feel like shouting, shout. I promise that if you start crying, you will eventually stop. You will have hard days and easier days, and with time you will feel better even though it doesn’t seem like it now.
2. Take care of yourself. While you’re grieving, it can be difficult to keep up with all of your normal responsibilities. That’s completely okay, and you should give yourself a break from your normal standards during this time. However, it is very important to still take care of yourself so that you can feel the difficult feelings without sinking into a depression. The first few days after Liam passed, I didn’t want to get out of bed, shower, cook, or leave the house. I quickly realized though, that staying in bed just made me feel worse.
So, I tried to stick to my regular schedule. If you have a mini piglet, getting up will be easy. Nothing jars you out of your grief and up out of bed like a squealing mini pig who just woke up and wants breakfast. Once I was up and showered, everything seemed a little brighter. For the first few days, I forced myself through the motions of cooking, going outside for little walks, and running errands. Although it was tough, getting up, moving around, and eating well helped me to not sink too deeply into my difficult feelings.
3. Let people help you. This was a tough one for me. I’m an introvert and tend to prefer animals to people, so I’m not particularly social. My typical way of dealing with grief is to just clam up so that no one sees, deal with it privately, and then join life again in a few months. This time I was forced out into the open with my grief because of this blog. Liam had been in pictures and discussed in a few posts, and I didn’t feel it was right to have him disappear from the blog without explaining where he went. So, I wrote a little memorial for him and posted it, fully expecting it would push people away and that many would unsubscribe.
Instead, people I have never met sent me the kindest, most compassionate messages. I was comforted over and over by people who had lost beloved pets and knew how I felt. It’s easy to feel alone in your grief and to think that no one understands, but so many people have been there and truly do get it. Sure, there are some who believe pets are just pets and who don’t think you should be sad, but they aren’t your people right now. Seek out the ones who get it and who have the capacity to sit with you in your sadness. Experiencing the compassion and kindness of people has been the bright spot in my grief.
4. Let go of the guilt. It’s normal to feel guilt when you’re grieving. After a pet has passed, your mind creates all kinds of “what ifs.” I’m embarrassed to admit my what-if scenarios, but my guilt started the day after Liam passed when I started worrying that Liam had eaten and been poisoned by a toad. We do have toads around our house, but Liam was never able to catch one. Once I started to feel better, I then realized that I had mowed the lawn a few days before and maybe I had injured a toad and then Liam was finally able to catch one and I should have considered that and paid more attention. After that, I worried that I vacuumed too much and put unnecessary stress on his heart. Your mind will come up with a million “what ifs” to perpetuate the guilt, so you just have to decide to stop entertaining those thoughts. It’s not easy, but the guilt cycle is not fair to you or those around you (I drove my husband nuts), and it will only add to your pain. Grieving is hard enough without the added dagger of guilt, so allow yourself to let go of it.
5. It’s okay to start moving on. It’s now been a week since Liam passed, and I have moments where I get caught up listening to a podcast or watching a show and briefly forget about my sadness. This is good overall, but I have guilt about those times and worry that I’m not honoring him if I feel happy without him. I even put off decorating for Fall because it felt wrong to move on to the next season and leave Liam behind. But, a friend reminded me that you don’t have to either move on or remember your pet. If you start to move forward, you won’t forget your pet or leave him behind. Your pet will remain in your heart and will stay with you forever, but it’s important that you go on and not miss precious moments with those still around you.
6. Be grateful for what you have and keep your heart open. It’s difficult to feel grateful when you’ve just lost your friend and companion. However, when I started spiraling into a really sad place after Liam’s death, I tried to stop and be grateful for the family, home, and pets that I still have. Although I miss Liam terribly, my life is still amazing and is full of people and things I love. Remembering what’s good in your life won’t fix your heartache, but it can shift your mindset and keep you from sinking too low into your grief.
It’s also been helpful to remember the great years I had with Liam. I am fortunate to have experienced so much love, and that love made me and my life better. Although your heart hurts, try to keep it soft and open by remembering the love you experienced and how much joy your pet brought you. I keep reminding myself that the pain I feel is the price paid for getting to love something so much. Even though it’s difficult now, that love is what life is all about and makes the hard times worth it.