About six months ago my wife and I had to make the agonizing decision to euthanize Remy, our 11 year old Irish Setter. Remy was a gentle giant with long legs and the most loving eyes in the world. We adopted him after he was rescued from an abusive home at the age of one, and he was such a good boy. But around the age of ten his long legs began to betray him. Eventually, he could barely walk, was in terrible pain despite medication, and couldn’t even make it outside to urinate or have a bowel movement. The time had come to say goodbye, and with the help of a very gentle house call veterinarian, we sent him on his way in the comfort of our home on his own bed.
That decision was difficult enough, but what followed was an overwhelming grief and emptiness that affected our entire family, including our younger dog, Rosie. Rosie displayed her grief by spending her days lying in the back of a closet. I didn’t expect to see her so touched, but it makes sense that her best friend for ten years was suddenly gone and even she didn’t know what to do.
As for the humans in the house, we all struggled but were able to talk about the loss of Remy and what he meant to us. We shared stories from his life and looked at pictures and videos of his younger days when he would run and run around the yard with that beautiful youthful energy.
Even now I still feel a longing to pet him, feed him, and snuggle up to him on the couch.
There is no one correct way to cope with the loss of a pet. Everyone grieves differently, but it is important to remember that pet loss can be just as powerful as the loss of a human. Pets give us the unconditional love and loyalty that we can sometimes miss from the people in our lives. The bond between owner and pet is often the strongest connection in our lives. Don’t listen to those that expect you to get over your grief quickly. Those who say, “It’s just a pet” have no idea what you are going through and there is no need to explain your loss to them.
Here are a few quick points about grieving the loss of your pet:
Don’t try to keep to a timetable for grief. For some, the grief will come on immediately; some will begin to acknowledge it weeks or months after the loss. It may feel better for a while and then something as simple as walking into a room, a certain smell, seeing someone with a pet, or just thinking about your pet can trigger a strong reaction of grief. It’s good to accept this response as normal and not try to run from it.
Ignoring the pain will not make it better. Healing from grief and loss works best when you face it, express it, and accept it. Holding in the feelings may make you think you are tougher, but studies of grief and loss show that it can make the grieving process last longer than simply talking about the loss and not being afraid to experience it.
Don’t let anyone tell you how to feel. Remember, we all grieve differently. It’s ok to be sad, frightened, angry, and lonely. It’s also ok to laugh and find moments of joy in your life.
As with any grieving process, practice good self care. Be sure that your physical and emotional needs are attended to during this difficult time. Nourishing food, plenty of sleep, and regular exercise can help you feel better.
The joyous wonder of having a loving pet in your life is one of the greatest feeling we humans can experience. However, the price of giving and receiving that love is the eventual loss of that friend. You will make it through this process and possibly, when the time is right, have a similar connection again. Remy will always be with me, running, playing, and sleeping with those long legs spread out on the couch.
For more resources there are many helpful websites. For this posting I used some information from Helpguide.
Joel Silverman, MA, LPC, is a member of The Therapist Group at Maria Droste Counseling Center in Colorado. He specializes in Individual Therapy, Couples Counseling, and Addiction Counseling.