There’s so much good information out there on pet loss support. But what about what to do in the immediate days after saying goodbye to a beloved animal companion? Joes’s dog Gracie died in his arms. The pain Joe was feeling was acute. He was feeling so much. Joe couldn’t eat, think, feel. His friend had found me online, and he placed a call, seeking support. Over the next 20 minutes, Joe shared with me about the weeks leading up to yesterday. Gracie had been sick for a few months, he took her to his veterinarian, but she wasn’t getting any better. He quit his job to be a full-time caregiver to her.
Together, they went on many appointments, different specialists who recommended all different medications and procedures. Joe gave them the benefit of the doubt even when he wasn’t sure. There was an instance where one had told him to give her medicine that may make Gracie sick to her stomach just so that she could take the other medication they had prescribed. They were referred to a specialist, then another and another, and her health continued to declined. After Gracie was released from her last hospital stay, he sought alternative therapy. He took her to an energy healing session, and was comforted by the words “her energy is good, she’s doing better.” But the next day, she was unable to hold down water or walk. In the hallway outside of his apt, she collapsed. He did CPR, rushed her to the hospital, but it was too late.
Joe cried, relaying what had happened, he wished that they hadn’t done all of those things to give him false hope. He felt guilty that he didn’t know if he should have made her go through all of those procedures, or perhaps there was something else he could have done.
This was a story I had heard before. Pet parents doing everything to save their animal friend but was unable to.
Unlike humans, our pets can’t speak, so they can’t tell us how they are feeling. But more than anything, we want to know we are doing the right thing.
Faced with a vet bill of 15k and not having worked for the past few months to care for Gracie, Joe was suffering. He didn’t have the financial means to tend to his own care.
Losing a pet is a devastating experience. Today, we recognize that pets are more than pets; it’s a part of our family. Yet, as a society, we are just beginning to acknowledge how acute the loss can be, impacting our physical and emotional state so profoundly. There is no plan of support for when one loses a pet. There is no funeral to plan, to wake to attend, no casseroles at the door. We may even feel shame around the depth of the pain we feel. But it’s real. And in our grief, if we are lucky to have a few loved ones who get what we are going through, we share, we cry together.
Joe and I made an appointment to meet later that evening. But his mind immediately went to the past and future. “6pm, that’s when I have to give her medicine.” There were a long pause and the discussion of fees for the session. What crossed Joe’s mind was that even if he were able to afford this session, he wouldn’t be able to continue. The care Gracie needed went above and beyond his savings. “Your call has already helped me more than you know” Joe said. I completely understand. I had been in the same shoes. Credit cards maxed out to save my Sophie.
So this is for you, Joe. And for all of the animal lovers finding themself in the void of those first moments without his “person.” Gracie wasn’t just his dog, she was his confidante, best friend, his child. When we hung up the phone, I knew I had to write this. For all of Joe’s and Gracie’s out there.
A mini survival guide to bring some comfort for those excruciating first days out.
ROUTINE: Realize your routine has been turned upside down—Having a pet sometimes feels like having a child that never grows up. They depend on us for all of their needs. When they get sick, another layer gets added on top, feeding schedule, medication schedule, sometimes 24/7 care, making sure they are not left alone. Losing a pet disrupts our daily routine in that all of a sudden, not only are we wrecked with grief, all of the routine things we are accustomed to doing are gone.
SUPPORT: Here are some things that come to mind for those first hours out—
Is there someone who can stay with you the 24/48 hours out, so you are not alone? It helps with not coming home to an empty house. Also having someone there helps with reminding you to care for your basic needs (IE- eating, drinking, sleeping, having something to listen to) If you don’t have someone, call a hotline, go online to a social support group, or a support group in person (click here to look at a list of pet loss resources)
EMOTIONS: Allow all of the feels. If you talk to your dog or cat out loud, it’s not silly if you feel the urge to continue to do so. Our animals have had a constant presence in our life for years. Take a photo out if it’s easier to talk to a physical representation. Find something comforting that represents your soul animal. For some, it can be their favorite toy, blanket, article of clothing. Hug it, keep it close to your heart. Give yourself a hall pass on the emotions. If you are angry, sad, allow all of it to come bubbling up. Every time we cry, it releases stored emotions and brings on healing. Don’t be embarrassed by it.
GRIEF RITUAL: You are likely to be in shock, disbelief she was here one moment and now gone. Give yourself a hall pass that it may take time for it to sink in. There is no timeline for grief. In those moments of not knowing what to do next, it can be cathartic to have something healing to do. Whether it is writing down all the ways and things you love about your animal friend, or lighting a candle and taking turns with friends to tell stories about him/her.
Follow the ritual one may have for a human. A funeral, wake, or service, shiva, or whatever your belief is and do the same with your pet. Finding ways of honoring helps with acceptance.
SELF-CARE/COMPASSION: Just for this week, think of all the things you’ve done to care for your animal friend and do the same for you. I know you don’t feel like it. It hurts too much. If your pet could talk, this may be one of their last messages to you. “I’ve hung on as long as I could, I wanted to make sure you were going to be ok, that YOU don’t suffer. You said you would do anything for me; now it’s time to give yourself the same care that you gave me. ”
I am not talking just about physical self-care. I am talking about kindness, compassion, empathy for yourself. When those guilty, regretful thoughts come, try your best to let them come and go. You don’t have to stop and figure out all the pieces that happened right now. Thoughts are thoughts. They are not real. Imagine the feelings are like a herd of horses stampeding in your head coming towards you. If it were in real life, your instinct would be to move aside and let the horses pass. This is what self-care looks for our thinking. Step aside. Remember that we don’t have to believe everything we think.
Last but not least, know that there is no perfect way to grief.