On losing a pet and dealing with grief

Losing a pet is hard. It doesn’t matter if it’s a dog, a horse, a cat or even a pet budgie, we miss their presence, their interaction and in some cases, their unconditional love.

When we are grieving, we live in 2 worlds.

The most acute world is the world of loss. If we have spent time with our pet every day, simple everyday activities remind us of them, and more to the point remind us that they are no longer there. Seeing paraphernalia such as a leash or a bridle can set us off as we walk past the veranda. I remember being in a middle of a mentoring training call with my students and seeing my beloved rescue horse Ally’s passport on my desk and bursting into tears. Right out of nowhere. Thankfully, I could not have had a more supportive environment to express these feelings of deep sadness than on a call with 7 students learning to really be there for others.

The other world we live in, is the a world where our grief is not as important as it is for us. This world is a world of practicalities such as booking the vet, burying your pet, getting that email from a colleague that has not heard of or does not understand your grief. This is the world that feels cold, disconnected and transactional. This is the world that may have made have our pet in the first place. We often have our pets to bring us joy, to have a sense of belonging and to remedy the world that drains us. Only now, our remedy is gone. As you can see, losing a pet can be much more complicated than simply losing a friend. It can be a loss of solace we knew was always there, waiting for us when we got home and happy to see us.

Recognizing the 2 worlds is not enough. Navigating between them is hard, and I know for myself I haven’t always been able to do it gracefully. So, the question is: how can we live in the 2 worlds while grieving?

I first experienced loss when I was 3. My father had killed our pet budgies for being too loud. He had a hangover. Ever since I have adopted 14 rescue animals - horses, dogs and cats - to somehow “make up” for the death of Hermanni and Hiisi. Of course, I understand that I can’t rescue them all, but I sure tried. With rescue animals comes the inevitable death. Most of these animals were injured, abandoned for being too old or just let go because of behavioural issues. The thing that all of them have in common is that they are on borrowed time. If I had not taken them, there was a high change that no-one else would have. For most of the animals that I have had, I was their last resort.

For the last several months, I have been dealing with both a natural death of a beloved pet, and an euthanasia decision made on behalf of another. Loss is hard. It is hard every time, because you have to use both your head and your heart in making the right decisions. Even tough pain and grief is hard, the joy these animals have brought me has made it worth it. Here are things that I have learned from the process:

The first thing to understand is, that the intensity of your grief will pass, even though it doesn’t feel like that right now. Hopefully you can accept that this, and hopefully it can give you some relief in your process.

Secondly, it is completely ok to be sad. You don’t have to hide at home or pretend like you are ok, when you are not. It is completely ok to say to others: “I am sad, because of a profound loss in my life, but I will be ok”. Too many people hide their feelings from others. This only adds to our disconnect and to our missing sense of belonging. You will be surprised to find out how many people will actually support you in your loss if you tell them what’s going on.

Third: don’t be alone with your grief. Grief is a human experience and you talking about your grief can help you navigate the path. Your grief may be so profound that you never get over it, and it is not my intent for you to “get over it”. It is my intent to show you a way to allow the grief to become something meaningful, even though your pet has moved on to new adventures. Embracing the lessons your pet taught you is a great way to pay respect to your pet and to keep their memory alive.