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
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.
my own case, my pets are, to some degree, replacements
for the children I am unable to bear. Whenever I lose a
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.