You may be surprised by the path your grief takes. Grief takes on a life of its own. It comes into your life, seems to take over your thoughts and reactions, and stays as long as it will—like an unwelcome guest.
People in grief are sometimes puzzled or dismayed by their own thoughts and behavior and may even wonder if they are “going crazy.”
What follows is some exploration of what people have shared with me in pet grief groups and in individual therapy. (As always, identifying details are changed, to protect privacy.)
“I am crying—sobbing—more for the loss of my cat than I ever cried for my mother and father when each of them passed. And I loved my mother and father. They meant the world to me. And yet, this loss is somehow more painful. How can that be? I feel ashamed. I should love my parents more than I love my cat.”
These words were spoken by Barb, a 65-year-old divorced woman, but almost exactly the same words have been spoken by grieving people of every description.
Yes, it is normal to feel this loss more painfully than the losses of some people in your life—even people who were very dear to you. If this happens to you, you will know that this is not as strange as it might seem.
Feeling this loss even more than you felt previous ones does not mean that you loved any of your dear ones more—or less; it does not mean one relationship was deeper and another shallower. There is no need to compare. Grief cannot be compared in that way; judging yourself for the depth of your grief is not necessary, and doesn’t help.
Your relationship with your pet was unique. In all likelihood, your pet was able to be with you in ways people never could: sitting near you while you read or worked, following you from kitchen to computer to bed, taking walks with you, greeting you as you came into the house—or even into the room after a short absence. Your pet was there through all the moods and hours of your day, day in and day out.
You were always the center of things in your pet’s world. The relationship was uncomplicated and clean of criticism, resentment, rejection, misunderstandings, and grudges—in short, a truly pure relationship that is very particular to the connection between an animal and a human. No human being could possibly give you that same clear and selfless devotion.
It’s very likely that you touched your pet more than you touched even the dearest people in your life; physical touch is a very important part of bonding.
While grieving, you may find yourself talking out loud to your animal companion. Frank, a single man in his fifties, kept up a running dialog with his black cat, Felix, for 17 years. As Frank made his morning coffee, powered on his computer to work from home, and planned his day, he shared his thoughts with Felix, who showed a flattering interest, turning his head from one side to the other, meeting Frank’s eyes with his own emerald eyes, and vocalizing in a variety of feline expressions, as if to demonstrate that he was following Frank’s line of thinking, and wanted to share his own reflections on it all.
“I know Felix didn’t understand the words…but I can’t help thinking then again, that he did. Or he understood the vibe, or something. He got me on his own level, in a way I can’t describe.” Frank’s eyes well with tears, which he tries to push back in with his fingers. “Now Felix is gone—I’m still talking to him. ‘What do you think about this, Felix?’ Am I nuts, or what?”
Frank is not “nuts.” He loves his pet deeply and is grieving deeply. Many people continue to talk to their pets after separated by death.
Cathy, a divorced empty-nester, is grieving the death of her golden retriever, Sasha. Cathy finds herself filling Sasha’s water bowl daily, even though Sasha has been gone for a month.
“It seems crazy, stupid, but I feel I have to keep clean, fresh water out for her.”
“Do you feel better after you fill the water bowl?” I ask.
Cathy considers. “I can’t say that I feel any better. But if I don’t do it, I feel awful—overwhelmed with anxiety and hopelessness. So filling the water bowl doesn’t make me feel less sad. But it relieves that anxiety I would feel if I didn’t do it.” She sighs. “ I know I need to stop.”
In fact, as we explore this, Cathy sees that she does not need to stop. Filling the water bowl is an instinctive part of Cathy’s own personal mourning process. It is an outward demonstration of the “denial phase” of her grief: providing the water just as if Sasha were still there to lap it up and spill streams of it on the floor. Cathy can continue filling Sasha’s water bowl until she no longer feels the need to do it.
Alithea, a college professor with an impressive academic career, speaks softly of her attempts to preserve Tony the chihuahua’s environment just as it was the day the mobile vet came to her home to euthanize him.
“His downstairs bed and his upstairs bed,” she smiles through her tears, “—he had two—they are both just where they were. I won’t even wash them. I can’t even think about putting them away. Everyone is telling me to put them out of sight, and maybe I should, but I just can’t. A toy he left out on the living room rug is still right there. He used to make little paw tracks in the comforter on my bed every day. Now he’s not there to do it anymore.” Alithea gasps and sobs. “So I make little tracks with my fingers, right across the bed, so it looks like he was just there. I feel I have to, to make the bed look right, the way it’s supposed to be.”
Like Cathy, Alithea is processing her grief, practicing her own mourning ritual, by preserving the home environment as it was before the loss. In this, there can be a sense of control where the heart and mind are struggling with the lack of control we experience when a loved one passes on.
These mourning rituals will continue as long as a person needs them, and then fade out.
Jenna, a woman in her thirties, began her path to wellness and fitness for the first time in her life when she adopted Fran, an energetic border collie. “When I saw her at the shelter, I fell in love, and just knew she was my dog. The shelter worker warned me that border collies need lots of exercise, and that someone had already adopted Fran and brought her back because they couldn’t give her the exercise she needed, and Fran, in her boredom, had gotten destructive in the house. At the time, the idea of exercise horrified me. But I had to have Fran.”
To meet Fran’s need for consistent vigorous exercise, Jenna walked her a minimum of six miles every day, through rain, snow and sleet. As a result, Jenna found herself at a healthy weight and happier state of mind. For nine years, Jenna and Fran could be seen every day, walking briskly through neighborhoods and parks, and often, to give her a sense of work, Fran carried a small stuffed toy—a squirrel—in her mouth. “Squirrel-squirrel” provided one of the many games Jenna invented to keep Fran’s mind busy; Fran learned to find Squirrel-squirrel, to “put Squirrel-squirrel to bed,” and many other activities on command.
After Fran’s death, Jenna continues her routine of walking, and she feels compelled to carry the stuffed squirrel with her, in her hand or in her coat pocket.
“That silly toy fills me with sorrow and comfort at the same time. It’s like Fran is with me when I carry Squirrel-squirrel. It’s like I can’t let go.”
Jenna does not need to let go—not all at once, and not on anyone else’s time table. Carrying Squirrel-squirrel seems to provide some peace for now, and does no harm.
“Seeing things” and “hearing things” are another common aspect of grief. David, a man in his forties, is grieving the death of his Rottweiler, Sam.
“In the morning, as I wake up, I hear his tags jingling in the hallway. I jump out of bed, feeling kind of excited, thinking, he’s come back, somehow. Nothing’s there. Maybe it’s Sam, his spirit, visiting me. Or maybe I’m going nuts.”
Ariana, a college student, recently had to euthanize her orange tabby cat, Shelby. “I’ll be walking in town, and it’s like I see her. It’s not a cat that sort of looks like her. It’s Shelby herself: exactly Shelby. My heart starts beating so fast. But whenever I can get up close, I can see then, it’s not Shelby. In fact, suddenly it looks nothing like her at all. It’s freaking me out, seeing her in random places, and then realizing it can’t be. It’s my mind playing tricks.”
Both David and Ariana are experiencing common grief reactions that probably spring from the deep yearning to see or hear the loved one again, and so the mind provides what we so much want to hear and see. This, like all the other grief reactions, will fade away in time.
Other grief reactions include:
- Ruminating (cycling through the same unhappy thoughts again and again)
- Flashes of anger: towards your vet, friends, family, God, yourself, and even your animal companion (for getting sick or “leaving”)
- Deep mournful sighs
Knowing that all of this is normal, you will be spared, I hope, from unnecessary self-judgments or worry about your sanity while grieving the loss of your pet. It’s always a good idea to find a professional therapist who understands pet grief, just to give you the support you need as you work through your grief.