In the month when we remember our loved ones who have passed on, here’s some good advice for coping with the loss of a beloved animal companion.For many people, pets aren’t just animals we feed and house. Many people feel that pets are part of the family.Unfortunately, death is inevitable. Some veterinarians say most cats are lucky to live ten years.
Eight to sixteen years is a good estimate for dogs, depending on breed type, size, genetics and care. Spiders are fairly long-lived too, with females living up to ten years and males at least half that, according to local enthusiast and science/technology editor Timothy James Dimacali. Turtles live even longer, some surviving for many decades, depending on the breed type.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals lists average life spans for various pets, but the short version is that few pets will live longer than ten years. Smaller creatures like hamsters, gerbils and some breeds of birds don’t live more than three to five years. Whatever the cause of death, be it illness, accidents, or old age, the accompanying grief can be crippling, even traumatic.
Time May–Or May Not–Heal Your Wounds
As a cat owner, I’ve cared for many cats, and lost a few over the years. When I got married, a friend gifted us with a Siamese kitten. We named him Bunny, and he liked lying on fresh laundry, or across my husband’s head. About a year after our wedding, my mother-in-law fell ill. At the same time, Bunny got sick too. He wouldn’t eat, and his eye color changed from blue to yellow. We brought him to the animal hospital, and visited him as often as we could. But he didn’t recover, and he passed away on the same day as my mother-in-law. It was a dark day, and it felt like the tears would never end.
After the loss of Bunny, we still had five other cats in our family, but we couldn’t imagine taking in any new cats. Friends asked if we were willing to adopt their kitten, while others suggested we get another Siamese. But it was impossible. For quite some time, I couldn’t even look at another Siamese without feeling a twinge of pain. For a long time, I thought we would never adopt another cat again. Recently, some kittens turned up at our house and adopted us. Now we find ourselves with new additions to our little family.
But for others, new pets and the passing of time might not suffice to assuage grief. In fact, the loss of a pet can take a serious toll on one’s emotional or mental health. Those who lose a guide dog are also losing their independence and mobility. The loss of working dogs, like guard dogs, bomb sniffers, and rescue dogs, can have an impact on one’s professional life as well, especially if the dog and the human had been together since training. Others experience even more distressful forms of grief, such as, according to the ASPCA, “hallucination-type experiences that leave an impression that you are hearing familiar sounds of your pet walking or calling.
Some people even think that they see their pet out of the corner of their eye, especially after just waking up.”
What can you do when you lose a beloved pet?
Many animal groups and mental health advocates have various suggestions. The ASPCA has an entire section of their website dedicated to both pet loss and end-of-life care for pets.
• It is important to remember that it is normal to feel whatever you are feeling. Be it grief, guilt, denial, anger, depression, sadness, confusion, these feelings are normal. Some people may experience some or all of these feelings in stages or cycles. Helpguide says, “It can’t be forced or hurried—and there is no ‘normal’ timetable for grieving. Some people start to feel better in weeks or months. For others, the grieving process is measured in years. It’s important to be patient with yourself and allow the process to naturally unfold.”
• Acknowledge your feelings. The site pet-loss.net says, “The most important step you can take is to be honest… Don’t deny your pain, or your feelings of anger and guilt. Only by examining and coming to terms with your feelings can you begin to work through them.”
• Take care of yourself. “Make sure you get the rest and nutrition you need, even when you feel distracted. Your concentration may be impaired, too, so that you need to take extra care with driving and crossing the street,” the ASPCA advises.
• Don’t let others devalue your loss. HelpGuide.org says this is doubly important because others will not always understand your grief. They will say, ‘What’s the big deal? It’s just a pet!’ “Some people assume that pet loss shouldn’t hurt as much as human loss, or that it is somehow inappropriate to grieve for an animal. Don’t argue with others about whether your grief is appropriate or not. Accept the fact that the best support for your grief may come from outside your usual circle of friends and family members. Seek out others who have lost pets.” You may even consider seeing a counselor of joining a support group.
• Have a pet memorial, or hold a ceremony. “Some find it helpful to express their feelings and memories in poems, stories, or letters to the pet. Other strategies including rearranging your schedule to fill in the times you would have spent with your pet; preparing a memorial such as a photo collage; and talking to others about your loss,” advises pet-loss.net.If you have lost a pet, you have lost a loved one, regardless of the size of the animal or the years he or she lived. But with time, love, care and patience, you will recover.
This appeared in Animal Scene’s November 2015 issue.