I was fortunate enough growing up to not experience a great deal of death in my life. My grandparents didn’t pass until I was well into my thirties, and both of my parents are still alive and healthy. We all know that death is a part of life, but that doesn’t necessarily make it any easier. For those of us who consider our pets like family, there are no amount of words that can accurately describe what it feels like when we lose one.
I can remember when I was sixteen or so and I had to put my cat to sleep after a long battle with feline leukemia. I was beyond devastated. For several weeks I couldn’t concentrate in school and didn’t have the energy to make it to my after-school job. I couldn’t eat and couldn’t sleep. Several of my friends couldn’t understand my grief.
“It was just a cat,” they would say. “Why don’t you just go out and get a new one?”
But for any of us who have actually experienced the true companionship that one feels with a pet, we can all agree that it is never “just a cat” or “just a dog,” “just a horse,” etc., etc. My experience is that time will heal the loss, but we will always have a place in our heart that holds onto the memory of our four-legged family members that are no longer with us.
In 1988, a study was conducted by the Journal of Mental Health to determine if the human/canine bond could be closer than some of our human family ties.1 Most of the participants placed their canine family member almost as close or just as close as their human family member in terms of importance. In a third of the cases studied, the participants placed their dogs closer than any other of their family members.
There are countless other studies that also confirm that the human/animal bond is extremely strong. When we lose our pets, what are we grieving?
There is no love as unconditional like the kind we get from our pets. Bad hair day? They don’t care. Lose your temper? They’ll forgive you. Lost your job? They’ll still love you. No matter your looks, finances, or mistakes, your pet will most likely still be there and still love you just the same. To find this quality in a human being can be rare.
The Comfort in Routine
Our pets tend to thrive on routine – this is especially true for dogs. I can remember one of my friends confiding in me about how lost she felt after putting her 14-year-old dog to sleep. For fourteen years, they had shared a routine together that included specific meal times, daily walks, and regular trips to the pet store for his favorite treats. At the time, this was her only pet and when he passed, she felt completely lost.
“I don’t even know what to do with myself,” she said in tears one day. “I feel like my life and routine has been completely changed without my permission.”
It can be extremely difficult to adjust to the changes that occur when we a lose a pet. As time goes on, however, we must find new routines to help us heal the loss.
An Irreplaceable Companion
While adopting a new companion after the loss of a previous can help heal the heart, our pets can never be replaced. They are just as original and individual as you and I. I think that sometimes we will adopt a new pet only to discover just how different they really are. We can either see this as something painful, or we can use this to create new types of adventures and memories with our new furry companion.
We understand your grief. You’re not crazy, not alone, and not irrational in your feelings. If you have recently lost a pet, it is important to allow yourself to mourn so that you can heal.