The connection we can have with our companion animals is so deep and multi-stranded. As I work with people who have had to say good-bye to this connection, I am touched by the eloquence of expression that the bereft find when describing that tie:
“He was my greatest support.”
“Many boyfriends over the years said to me, ‘OK, it’s me or the dog,” and I always told them, ‘It’s been nice knowing you.'”
“No other animal can ever complete me the way Maisie did.”
“Everyone in the neighborhood knew Jasper and me; we were always seen together; now I feel like I’ve lost my identity.”
“She saw me through so many milestones of my life–college, relationships, jobs; when I got her, my hair was still brown!”
“It’s like I’ve lost a part of myself. It’s somehow worse than when I’ve lost people that I loved. Now, how can that be?
There are many reasons why this bond is so deep and so different from the other bonds in our lives.
First, there is the aspect of physical touch. Many people touch their dog or cat far more than they touch any human being. Your pet may sit on your lap or rest his head on your feet while you work at the computer, watch TV, or read a book. As you stroke your pet, after 3 minutes you experience a release of oxytocin in your brain. This is the hormone that nursing mothers have, the one that nature uses to give us a feeling of connectedness, to make us want to return and experience that hormone release again. It gives a feeling of peaceful relaxation and well-being. While you get that release of oxytocin, so does your pet. One thing that grieving pet owners miss the most is the physical touch: “the curliness of his fur,” “her little weight in my arms.”
Second, there is the routine, every-day togetherness. When you get up to go to the coffee maker, when you stand in the kitchen preparing food, when you sit down to eat, there is your friend. You may take your pet for walks or car rides. You have a pattern of feeding, possibly medicating, and playing with your pet.
Third, if your bond was deep, you probably communicated regularly with your animal friend, verbally or non-verbally. You may have talked to your animal, and he may have seemed to understand you. “That dog understood every word I said, I truly believe that. I just talked to him and I could tell by the way he met my gaze, he was taking it all in.” “My cat knew what I was feeling. She would come to me when I was sick or sad, and just give me her peaceful presence. She knew.” When that source of communication, that feeling of being understood by another is gone, it is a lonely feeling.
Fourth, our relationship with our pet is simple, even while being multi-stranded. It is simple because, unlike human relationships, it is completely clean of judgment, grudges, criticism, insincerity, deception–in short, it is free of all the negative complexities that we may experience with people. It is what it seems to be: pure love and devotion. That’s why we prize it so much.
Fifth, and last, our animals depend upon us completely. Some people view their animals as their children. “They are like kids who never go through a disagreeable adolescence; they keep loving you and needing you, and they don’t leave home.” This dependence meets our instinctive need to nurture. The shadow side of this dependence, however, is that we feel totally responsible for their well-being, and often, we are even called upon to make the very difficult decision to euthanize them when their lives have become a burden to them. That decision is one that leaves many people stricken with guilt and second-guessing. “Did I wait too long? Did I selfishly let him suffer because I couldn’t let go?” or, on the other hand, “Did I move too quickly? Could she have had one more good week? Was she ready to go?”
Considering all of these various ways of connection we have with our pets, it is only logical that we would feel pain and grief at the loss of that connection. Of course, not everyone is so deeply connected with their pets. (See my previous post, “The Unique Bond.”) But for those who have the privilege and joy to have such a profound bond with an animal friend, the loss of that friend can be devastating. While grief is normal, healthy and inevitable, there is always the concern that a deep grief could trigger a chronic depression. If you are reading this because you are grieving the passing of a dear animal friend, whether recent, long ago, or still anticipated, please do yourself the kindness to acknowledge the importance of your feelings, and allow yourself to seek support, either in a pet grief support group, or with an individual therapist whose focus is on pet grief.
And while, in this post, I have referred to the “loss of the connection,” I would like to invite you to consider that phrase and ask yourself if we do, in fact, lose the connection when our animal friend passes on. One way of coping with grief is to focus on how we have internalized the loved one, and in what ways he or she will always be a part of us. Some people believe that death does not end a relationship; that the relationship can continue evolving even after one of the partners has died. What is your experience, or your belief about the continuing connection between you and your dearest animal friend?