If a dog is man's best friend, why is it that society expects us to move on from the death of one so soon? Cats are supposed to have 9 lives but what happens to the people they leave behind when the last one runs out?
The standard set by us humans is that animals are considered to be property instead of an integral part of a person's life. Animal abuse charges in North America vary in severity from a fine to a minimal jail sentence and its consequences pale in comparison to harming or killing another being. This categorization of how we value pets is why it can be considerably more distressing to deal with the passing of one. Studies have shown that the benefits to having an animal companion are greatly beneficial emotionally, physically, psycho-socially, and can even be an option for the therapy of many ailments.
How can the importance of pets and the positive impact they have on our development and well-being be dismissed when they pass away? For those who have not had the pleasure of becoming attached to a deserving pet, these are the ways the grieving process is made more difficult when we have to say goodbye to our beloved companions than it is for when a human passes away.
1. No funeral. While families and those closest to the pet can come together for a makeshift memorial, there are no formal ceremonies in place or services available that can help you put your loved one into a final resting place. With veterinary services such as the ability to cremate him helping some with the mourning process, a ceremony allows loved ones to come together and acknowledge the life that has passed on.
2. No time off. It makes sense to not offer employees or grant students permission to a few days off to mourn an animal because people who have not bonded with a pet in their household could take advantage of such a policy. For those of us who are destroyed by our animal friend's passing, we may need a few days to get our heads on straight to function at a base level. While some generous employers and instructors may give people leniency due to this loss, it is not necessary and many people are expected to continue their lives uninterrupted because there isn't a policy that stresses the need to take some time off due to this traumatic life change.
3. "Get over it". It's just a/n [insert animal here]. Yeah, we get it. You don't care that much for the animal or maybe pets in general. Guess what? Whether or not we are irrationally devastated about the loss of a purple polka-dotted dinosaur that doesn't exist, acknowledging the pain we are in without being dismissive is essential to being a good person. While your opinions about the reason for our feelings may not match up with our turmoil, judging will do nothing but create a wedge in how we will trust you with our hearts in the future.
4. Afterlife. For the spiritually inclined, there is an ethereal place where humans go when they die if they have obeyed the laws cited in Holy Scripture. Even if you do not believe in any deity this concept can be hard to grasp because you have to cope with where you believe your loved one has gone to. Do our four-legged family members join us "on the other side"? A poem, The Rainbow Bridge, was seemingly created to establish an ideal outcome in order to calm these questions we'll never know the answers to so that we can better cope with our extensive loss.
5. Daily interactions. A part of our grief comes from the loss of the relationship we had, not just the love we have for our companions. Just knowing your little buddy was there to talk to everyday becomes a gift that you cannot pay enough money in the world to return. Petting, grooming, playtime, and talking in squealing gibberish to see your animal's eyes light up because you just paid attention to him is a powerful connection to have that confirms a reciprocating relationship.
6. Unconditional love. Unlike people who judge, set personal boundaries, keep secrets, and even keep you at arms length, you know everything about your companion. This honesty removes social barriers designed to protect ourselves because an animal will always love you, even if you have to chastise him or give him treats at his designated time. He won't judge you for gaining 50 pounds or because of your general awkwardness in public because he sees the best in you and will always return the love you show him.
7. Routine. Everything from a morning nose rub to the sound of kibble being gobbled up becomes routine and without it we are left feeling lost. This silence and presence erased from your home creates an emptiness from the daily expectations you had in your dwellings. You miss the 6am food cries, the greetings at the door, and midnight cuddles you've had for years. While routines with humans can be strict, they adjust over time based on needs and availabilities. Animals have an innate clock that becomes an alarm when you are a minute behind your schedule. Friends and family come and go while your pet becomes your immediate family.
8. Supports. There are wonderful groups online and resources that can assist you in your grief but there is a stigma related to losing an animal that prevents people from seeking help from a counselor if the grieving process is affecting other areas of life. For the same reason, family and friends may not understand your suffering and you are left to feel alone in your tragic loss which can activate unhealthy thought patterns or behaviors. If you live in an area with an in-person support group that discusses the loss of a pet, you are very lucky to have open dialogue with others who understand the depth of your pain.
9. Communication. One of the tougher notions of losing a pet surrounds the idea of simple communication. Humans are complex beings who can talk to each other and come up with an understanding of a situation. When a pet is nearing the end of his life you cannot make amends or explain what is happening and you can't decipher what he's thinking. He may be scared and while you may be able to make his situation the most comfortable it can be, like a baby, you cannot explain what is happening for him to process and find a mutual peace in the journey of a final goodbye.
10. "When are you getting another?" People are meant to be resilient and aim to recover from traumatic life events so when you lose a beloved pet, it is natural for those who care about you to ask when you are going to fill the void by adopting another lucky fur-child. Emotionally, we may process it as someone trying to get us to replace the love we just lost. Some people take comfort in immediately having a new life in the house as a way to process their loss while others need to step back to work through these devastating feelings and wait until the time "feels right". No matter what, we can never really move on with our lives or forget the impact of the pet's life but we somehow navigate through the pain to a place where we can move forward to honor our pet while blessing another needy animal with the love we have to give.
Rest In Peace, Angel (aka "Piggy")
July 22nd, 2014
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