Why don't you put her down? She's had a good life with you!"
This was a recent statement from a few well intentioned friends upon learning that we, as a family, can't do something with them -- like go away for a weekend. We have an elderly dog, Hope, who can no longer be left with friends or family. She gets stressed and agitated when she is not with us and in unfamiliar surroundings, so at 15 and one-half years old we choose not to put her through that.
The comment isn't meant to hurt but it reflects a different point of view on animals, aging and dying. The underlying sentiment is that our dog is going to die anyway so why not relieve ourselves of the discomfort and inconvenience. I have worked with animals and people for decades -- it is both my passion and my career -- so I was caught off-guard when I felt that subtle pressure from mainstream society to put my dog down and move on with life, that grieving for Hope would somehow be wrong and that organizing our lives around her final journey was ill-conceived.
Statements like these have been helpful, though, in making conscious choices about the process that my family is going through as we guide our much-loved dog from a bouncy puppy to a slower and more challenged dog today and eventually through to her death. Hope has brought joy and companionship to our family. She has been our playmate, teacher, midwife, constant companion and comic relief. Today some of that joy has been replaced by worry and thoughts of mortality as she lives her geriatric experience. There's no doubt that she is failing but equally there is no doubt that she still loves her walks, having her ears scratched and taking in the smells of spring.
This process of recognizing the power of our relationship with Hope, giving myself permission to love and to grieve and learning how to handle the experience are steps in a process of healing from pet loss. In The Power of Pets: 7 Effective Tools to Heal from Pet Loss, author Marybeth Haines notes that too often pet loss and the feelings of grieving are hidden from others due to the fact that much of modern society does not understand it or validate it. But a common barrier to healing is blocking the negative feelings and not giving ourselves permission to experience them, which provides support for those of us embarking on this path to both coping with a loss and moving through a healing journey.
Hope has yet again given a gift to our family -- the gift of a healing journey. It is one that I dread but want to live consciously. Allowing ourselves to prioritize our relationship with a companion animal, to support and to grieve, is an expression of the same dynamic that allows us to include humane treatment of animals in our daily lives, whether or not we have pets. The human animal relationship has been described as an encounter in which what is best in me recognizes what is best in another - another person or another creature. In this moment the other becomes a part of my moral community and I begin to see him or her as a fellow creature. The fellow-feeling guides my actions. I care. When the other is harmed or treated cruelly, I act. When that care is broken by loss, I grieve.
So the next time you encounter someone on this journey or preparing for it here are 3 simple things you can do to help:
1. No matter how you feel personally, acknowledging the importance of the companion animal in the person's life is a significant gift. It is a key step in grieving loss -- both that the animal is recognized as important and that companion human feels that recognition.
2. Provide permission -- even if in a small way like sending a condolence card on the passing of a pet. I can tell you from first-hand experience it creates a sense of relief in the griever that it is okay to feel bad, sad or mad.
3. Validate the person' feelings and emotions -- a simple "you must feel grief at your loss" or in my case "you have to make some tough decisions for your loved one".
In striving towards a humane Canada, using our human strengths of compassion, fellow-feeling, and empathetic thought and feeling, we make the world a better place for all creatures and for ourselves. The pain of loss is the flip side of that empathy and connection.
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