God with Skin On: Finding God in Human Relationships by Anne Robertson

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The Pain of Losing a Beloved Pet

Written By Anne Robertson

When my dog, Max, got a brain tumor at only five years of age, I thought my world had ended. That was almost 20 years ago, and I can still see the frightened look on his beautiful collie/shepherd face as the vet led him away. I couldn’t bear to be there when they did the deed, and to this day I am sorry for my cowardice. I should have been there to hold him as he died.

People who callously say to people who have lost a pet, “You can just get another one,” make me crazy. In saying such things, they show that they have never had the gift of bonding with an animal soul. Our companion animals are friends, and they are family. The grief we feel when they die is real and intense. Those who minimize it need to get a clue and stop adding insult to our injury.

Because many in our culture do not take grief over the loss of a pet seriously, our grief in those circumstances is often harder to get through. As with any loss, you don’t really get over it. You get through it and assimilate the experience, so that the life and death of the one you love becomes part of your life story—part of what makes you uniquely you. Because of my love for animals and people alike, helping people through pet-loss has become an important part of my ministry.

When people become stuck in their grief over the loss of a pet, a lot of things can be going on. In some cases, the loss of the companion animal also represents other losses. I have counseled people who lost a pet that belonged to someone else at one time…someone else who is now gone. For example, when you take on the pet of one of your parents after they die or have a pet that was owned in a prior marriage, the loss of that pet is compounded. There is the normal grief for the pet, but also the grief for the lost parent, lost marriage, or whatever the situation was.

In my own case, my pets are, to some degree, replacements for the children I am unable to bear. Whenever I lose a pet, the pain of infertility resurfaces. (Yes, I know this is neurotic. I do it anyway.) Others sometimes come face to face with loveless situations which had been avoided by focusing love on the pet. Recognizing that you could be grieving more than just for your companion animal is often a help in getting through. A sympathetic counselor can help with this process.

In some cases, there is a lack of closure. Especially when a death is sudden, or if (like me with Max) you are not present when a pet dies, there is a special need to say goodbye.Even when the death is the natural end to old age or disease, there is still something deep within the human psyche that needs to mark life’s passages with ritual…to sum up the life and to begin to integrate it into our total life’s experience. Some of my clergy colleagues think I am silly for doing pet funerals, but I think they can be as powerful and helpful as funerals for human beings.

When people write to me that they are stuck in their grief over the loss of an animal, I almost always recommend that they do some ritualistic act: light a candle, say a prayer, say your last goodbyes, tell stories about your life together to a sympathetic ear. Some people create a memorial garden in the back yard or put a favorite toy in a special place. Often veterinarians will offer (or you can request) that a paw print be made or some fur be kept as a keepsake. If you’re not sure that you want something like that, get it anyway. You can always throw it away, but you can’t get it later if you don’t do it and then decide you would like to have it.

Sometimes people write to me filled with guilt. “I was the one who left the gate open, and she got hit by a car.” “I should have noticed that he didn’t have energy much sooner.” We tend to have guilt feelings with human losses, and it is no different with our animals. These feelings can be given over to God. Since I believe that animals who die move into God’s care, I encourage people feeling guilt to simply offer that to God as their confession and ask for forgiveness. From the heavenly perspective, both God and the animal can see our hearts and understand where we are coming from. They are no longer in pain, and they don’t want us in pain either. St. Paul says that love never ends, and I believe that is true. Our animals love us after death, even as we love them. They are at peace, and we are forgiven.

Although it can be hurtful to minimize someone’s loss by saying, “Just get another cat,” when the grief has abated a bit, there are literally thousands of animals with no one to love or care for them. The best way to honor the love we gave to a former pet is to bring that love to a new one. Love that isn’t given away withers on the vine. Don’t live in the past for the rest of your life. While you live and breathe, you still have love to give, and there are living creatures who need to receive it. That is God’s way.

Copyright ©2004 Anne Robertson

For additional reading on losing a pet, visit "Will Mr. Pooper Go To Heaven?" on Anne Robertson's Web site.