That flush of emotion — one that can encompass anything from sadness, a void, a breathlessness even confusingly accompanied by a catch of vibrant joy after recalling a fond memory — is sometimes familiar, at other times, surprisingly less so, equally gripping and can hit any time. It’s that emotion that comes with the grief after the loss of a loved one. Loss that is recent, anticipated or is one that has had a chance to cure a bit with time or tending. The accompanying grief that inextricably links us as part of the human experience can just as easily isolate those that it’s touching if it doesn’t really register on the radar of loved ones, friends, those that we work alongside, the world-at-large.
The interesting thing about loss and grief is that neither seek approval from anyone. The pair swoop in without being summoned, and we’ve no choice but to go along with them when they arrive. There’s really no point in which grief from loss — especially loss sprouted from death, loss has many roots — is equidistant to any time frame or stage of life. In fact, there is no timeline at all for it, despite what some think.
Having experienced this myself and in accompanying others through their grief, there’s no doubt that this is an especially challenging misconception to hurdle in our interactions with others after losing a pet. It seems that it’s easier to understand the loss itself to be so gutting — it’s so black and white, so tangible — but it’s that lack of approval that grief seeks that seems to trip people, the grieving and those around them, up. Grief is cloudy, so murky, subjective even. Because grief isn’t always recognizable, because of some of our less-than-healthy relationships to it, fears about what it is or isn’t and most importantly, how it should proceed, it can be the default when around a grieving person to say well-meaning-but-off-the-mark things, to even have a dismissive attitude or worse. I recall one woman, who I know to be impossibly caring quip, “Well, we all have to go sometime…” after my dog, Bruiser died from cancer. This was odd, coming from her but later, I came to understand the flippancy of her comment better.
There’s so much chatter about what not to say to someone who is grieving a pet, what to say to them, and a lot of it is helpful information. In their defense, it can be tough for someone who doesn’t “get it” or hasn’t been afforded the luxury to, to get it right. And, in my experience, those grieving the loss of a pet often don’t feel empowered to own their process, to express what they need.
Do you see the gap there?
Instead, when we’re grieving, the advice we often hear is to stay away from those who aren’t as understanding or supportive as we’d like, at least for a little while. And that’s fine in theory, but the fact is that in practice it’s more tricky; we have professional and familial ties to others, not to mention that in general, life doesn’t stop and avoidance isn’t a good strategy. To soften those uncomfortable interactions for ourselves, we often defer to the other person. Sure, that can be a quick way to get through a moment, but time after time after time, it can wear on us — and it really doesn’t make future interactions easier as we grieve.
What I’ve discovered in years of writing about the human-animal bond (and more importantly, listening to reader comments), working with families with pets and as a pet loss and grief companion, the idea that often, in our own haze of grief, the ones with the most indifference, the purveyors of biting, off-the-mark comments are the ones who are hurting as much as we are. Yes, sometimes, our grief tears off the proverbial scabs of their own disenfranchised, buried, and silent grief. Like the ones that belonged to the aforementioned woman, as I learned.
Does that mean that we stuff our grief? I offer, a resounding no! — quite the contrary. Instead, tread thoughtfully, mindfully through your grief process during interactions with others.
Don’t be afraid to say to another person when you’re having a tough moment, hour, or day that when they are having difficulty in navigating something important to them, that you hope that you’re extending the kind of consideration they need to do that better. Be fearless in articulating how your grief is very much a testament to the relationship to your pet — another living being that you spent each day with — and that their confusion about it can make it tough to relate, but surely they’ve a close relationship that’s been impacted by death and that must resonate on some level. The comments with regard to euthanasia can be especially cutting, and it’s no wonder: in my experience, it’s the single most sensitive issue surrounding a companion animal’s end-of-life, especially for those who have avoided it, had a poor euthanasia experience, or if there is a sudden illness or accident necessitating it. It’s always fitting to express with sensitivity, the notion that yes, having a veterinarian’s help to helping your pet go to peace might be or is or was necessary, and that you’re grateful that your final act of love for them was an option.
Is everyone that you encounter wrestling with their own buried grief with a pet as you make your way through your own? No. But I will say that our culture doesn’t have the healthiest relationship when it comes to loss and grief. And pets have a way of drawing us humans closer to that edge of profound emotion than anything else on earth with their ability to form social bonds and life cycles that move far too quickly from curious, young creatures to the mature sages that we envy. And the latter, no matter our feelings about pets, magnifies our collective uneasiness with mortality. So again, be unapologetic and brave about your grief after losing a pet, and bear in mind that the person who seems to be the least supportive of it may actually draw the support and resilience that they sorely need to reconcile their own sense of loss in your doing so.
Lorrie Shaw is owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care support. She is also a Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion and a member of The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care and Pet Sitter International. She tweets at @psa2.