Almost every day I see a Facebook post that someone’s beloved companion has passed away. Each and every time it sends a stabbing pain through my heart. I feel for their suffering and wish I could ease it for them.
In just the same manner as those dealing with human loss, these loving caregivers will need to transverse the five stages of grief that Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross introduced us to in her book “On Death and Dying”: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. No one can make things easier, and each person will deal with their grief in their own way and in their own time.
Those who are not “animal people” will never understand. But those who have welcomed beloved companions into their lives know all too well that the loss of a “pet” (how I dislike that word) is every bit as painful as the loss of a human family member. In some cases, it is even harder.
Dogs, cats, birds, horses and all other companion animals are not just living obligations that we allow into our lives. They become so much more: a friend, a companion, a soul mate. In some cases, they become just as close as our children. And their loss strikes at the center of who we are as humans.
Human children grow up, move out and move on with their own lives. Our companions never do. They don’t ask for money, or argue politics, or ask to use the car. They don’t roll their eyes at our old-fashioned ideas as our human offspring are wont to do. They are always glad to see us and act as if we’ve been gone forever each and every time we come home. They are loyal, they are loving, and they think we are absolutely wonderful just the way we are. Is it any wonder we grieve their loss so strongly?
Thankfully there are studies which validate what we are feeling. A 1988 study in the Journal of Mental Health Counseling asked dog owners to express how close their companions were to them. A majority of respondents placed their dog as close as their closest family member. In an unbelievable 38% of cases, the person responding said their dog was their closest family attachment.
A study that was published in 2002 showed that the death of a beloved companion is every bit as devastating as the loss of a spouse or significant other.
I know first hand how strong the grief can be. When Ray died it was one of the most significant losses I have ever experienced. Today, more than four years later, I still tear up when I think about the night we lost him to an unexpected blood clot. When it happened I couldn’t understand why I was reacting so strongly to the loss of a dog. It took time and the assistance of a really good counselor for me to begin to understand.
Grief is not just an emotion, it is a state of being. Sorrow will roll over us in unexpected waves. At first, it is hard to even catch a breath as we are pummeled by the tidal wave of grief. Slowly, with time, it begins to recede somewhat. But just like the tides of the ocean, it never really goes away. For the most part it becomes gentler and less devastating. But there are always those moments when we are once again pulled underneath the current of pain. Eventually it becomes a constant awareness, but it no longer rules our hearts or minds.
It is so important to give yourself permission to grieve. You have lost an incredibly important emotional attachment. It doesn’t matter if others understand. You need to acknowledge your loss and recognize the sorrow and emotions. Do not allow others to tell you how or how long to mourn. It is not their loss and they have no say in what you are experiencing.
I will always miss Ray. I will always have those moments where I think of him and cry. But now I can celebrate what we had together instead of just grieving his loss. And that is what I wish for all my friends and family as they experience this most painful of life’s transitions.
There is a legend at Angel’s Rest that I absolutely love. The gravesites are ringed by hundreds of windchimes. Every single time there is a placement ceremony (funeral) at least one wind chimes rings out loud and clear. Even on the stillest of days. According to the story told by the caretakers, when an animal is placed he is finally free to run to the Rainbow Bridge. His body is now young, and strong and healthy. When he gets there and sees all of the happy animals and humans he is so excited that he jumps and twirls and runs, raising a wind which comes down to earth and touches the chimes. Just so we will all know he is happy and safe now. And that is the thought that I hold closest in my heart. Somewhere Ray is young and healthy, strong and happy and is running free awaiting the time I will join him.