Coping with pet loss

“It just takes time”         

When some people lose a pet they say, “Never again—no more pets for me”…and they mean it.  Perhaps the pain of losing their pet was too overwhelming, or perhaps their lifestyle has changed so that a pet no longer fits in well.

But most of us who have loved a pet and lost it know, deep down under the pain, that someday there will be a new animal companion to make us laugh or comfort us.  But when is the best time to bring a new animal friend into our life?

Perhaps the best advice is this: don’t listen to other people’s advice.  Trust yourself; you will know when the time is right.

For most people this will mean a waiting period of anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to a year or more while the natural grieving process occurs.  Make no mistake about it, this was a significant loss you suffered.  Those who are impatient with your grief and say “Well, for heaven’s sake…he was only a dog” are way off the mark.  Our pets are intimately linked with the fabric of our daily lives; they are part of the joys and help ease the sorrows.  When we lose someone we love, whether a pet or a person, we seem to go through a remembering and a reevaluation of the events and relationships of our past.  It’s tremendously complicated!  And we do ourselves no service when we deny the grieving process.  Indeed we pass up the opportunity to grow and become wiser human beings.

When we try to short-circuit the grieving process by immediately replacing the lost pet (often with one who looks as much as possible like the old one) the new pet/owner relationship is sometimes unsatisfactory.  The new Springer Spaniel just doesn’t love to retrieve the ball the way the old one did, and even though he loves you, is sweet and smart, he seems unsatisfactory.  Not the new pet’s fault; you just weren’t ready to let go of the old one yet.

If a child was deeply involved with a pet, s/he too needs to be allowed to take the painful but important journey through his/her grief.  As parents we so often want to spare children pain that we do unwise things…like bringing home a new dachshund puppy the day after Fritz is struck by a car.  Children often see such a quick replacement as disloyalty to the former pet and rather than being comforted, they resent the new pet.  Ask the child or wait for him/her to tell you when they are ready.

If you love the bounding good nature of an Irish setter, there’s nothing wrong with getting another setter when the time is right.   If you love the way a Siamese can carry on a conversation, then you’re probably right to get another, but that does make it harder to consider the newcomer an individual in its own right rather than a reincarnation of the lost pet.  At least consider a change.  Times change and our lives and interests along with them.  Perhaps a little adult mixed breed or an affectionate cat from the shelter might now suit you better than getting another bouncy pup who “looks just like Duffy did.”

And how can you tell when the grieving has pretty much run its course?  You will not, of course, have forgotten your old friend, but the remembering will be different.  You will stop agonizing over whether or not you made the right decision when you had your good old lab put to sleep when the medication no longer eased his arthritis pain.  Instead you will remember how that dog loved to dive off the dock after the kids and waited so patiently for the school bus every afternoon.  Instead of kicking yourself for not noticing that tumor on your cat’s stomach sooner, you will remember, as you unpack the groceries, how that goofy little cat used to love to play with a paper bag.  And instead of turning away in pain and even anger when you see someone else enjoying his/her pet, you want to get closer and be part of it.  You volunteer to dog sit your sister’s dog when she goes skiing.  You casually glance through the pets column in the classifieds, and on a Saturday when there’s not much to do, you drive out to the Humane Society….”Just to look around,” of course.  You’re getting ready.  And it’s the highest compliment you can give to your lost pet, telling him that what you had together was so special that, no matter what the risk of pain, you want that feeling back again.

Permission by Sharon Christison 

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