“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” — Anatole France
On Jan. 22, following a three-week whirlwind diagnosis and decline, my husband and I said goodbye to our 6.5-year-old goldendoodle, Lily. Her disease had rendered this Frisbee-catching superstar unable to stand or walk. She needed to be carried outdoors to “get busy,” and she no longer had the stamina to stay awake for extended periods of time.
We spent the entire last weekend with Lily in the emergency room as she struggled against various gastrointestinal issues and, finally, internal bleeding. Her vet and neurologist felt that the disease had progressed and her prognosis was bleak. It was then that we made the most difficult decision we have ever made — to let her go. We took time lying with her, holding her, reminiscing … and stayed with her until her last heartbeat.
On the first day without our Lily, I kept tripping over my grief as I called out to see if she needed to go outside or wanted to lie by the window and watch “her birds.” Max, our 9-year-old goldendoodle, moped around the house, trying to sniff Lily out without success. He looked at me as if begging, “Bring her back, OK?” I canceled my clients for the day. I couldn’t imagine sitting with their pain as my pain continued streaming from my eyes.
I found myself returning to the little Catholic girl inside of me and lighting a candle next to a picture of our Lily that I had placed on the fireplace mantle. I wrote, announcing our loss to all 210 close friends on social media. I started a scrapbook and printed pictures long held captive in my iPhone. I cried continuously, as if the floodgates had been lifted and years and layers of grief came pouring out. All the losses in my life appeared to be resurrected with Lily’s death. My heart ached and my stomach hurt.
My attempts to prep for my classes that week proved futile. I just couldn’t concentrate. I kept reading the same sentence over and over again. Mostly I was just tired. Tired from three weeks of relentless caregiving, painstakingly attempting to keep the horrific disease at bay — the disease that stripped my beautiful bird-watching, tail-wagging, never-had-a-bad-day rescue pup of her mobility, energy and dignity. In the end those soulful eyes would beg me to end her suffering, and in keeping the promise I had made to her, I mercifully did, holding her till the end.
Tips for coping with the loss of a pet
Experiencing the death of a pet can be painful and devastating. Our pets are often our most vulnerable family members, relying on us completely for their care. This includes end-of-life care, which may involve making very difficult decisions about treatment and finally letting go. This adds complexity to grief because we may struggle with questions surrounding the decision to stop treatment and euthanize: Did I do enough? When is it time to let go?
1) Grief comes in waves. Initially the waves may be intense and relentless, pummeling us to the ground. We may feel that we will never breath (or stop crying) again. But with time and some work, the waves gradually recede, allowing us to stand and take tentative strides toward a “new normal.” Still, the waves will come and go, often crashing near a special day or at a moment when our dear fur-family member comes to mind.
2) Grief is brain work. Grief affects our neurology. It makes it difficult to concentrate. We forget things. We are easily irritated. We definitely are not on our A game. We may even feel like we are in a dream (or nightmare). Neurologically, we have taken a hit and require time to recover. Don’t worry. The grief fog will lift eventually. In the meantime, be gentle and kind with yourself.
3) Grief is an ever-changing chameleon. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified stages of grief related to dying that can also be applied to our experiences of grief and loss. These stages are no longer thought to happen in a linear manner. Rather, they are common experiences that can occur moment to moment as the result of grief.
Anger: Initially, I felt anger at the sudden deterioration of Lily. She had been running and playing catch just days before her back legs began to buckle under her body. Following an MRI and spinal taps, she was placed on a steroid treatment that quickly led to weight loss and gastric-intestinal discomfort. I was angry at the doctor. I was angry at the disease. I was angry at God.
Guilt: Although I knew I had responded quickly to Lily’s symptoms, I was plagued with self-doubt around the decision to use steroid treatment. Should we have gotten a second opinion? Should we have taken her to a holistic veterinarian? Ultimately, I ruminated over our decision to stop all care and put her to sleep. Was there more that we could have done? It was profoundly clear that the disease had progressed and Lily’s quality of life had suffered drastically, but I still experienced pangs of guilt.
Denial: The first few days were the most grueling. Walking in a daze, I still held some hope that this was all just a nightmare, and as I tripped over Lily’s misplaced toy, I would awaken to find both of our dogs curled at the foot of the bed.
Sadness: It is immensely sad to lose a love one — even a curly headed, wet-nosed, tail-wagging one. I am free with my tears in general, so I just let the emotions stream down my cheeks. Sadness, like grief, looks different for each individual. I am an emotional griever. I emote. My husband is an instrumental griever. He does research on the internet to seek answers. He walks our dog, schedules doggie play dates and arranges activities to help our other dog, Max, with his grief.
Acceptance: Ultimately, the hope is that there will be a sense of peace and understanding at some point and time. This may be experienced in fleeting moments rather than in an arrival at a destination, however.
4) Grief is individual. For me, Lily’s death overshadowed any other event occurring in the world. My Lily had died. Nothing else mattered to me. I crafted my coping strategy selfishly without concern for the feelings or needs of anyone else, including my husband, who had experienced the same loss.
It quickly became apparent that my grieving was more expressive and ritualistic. I made a scrapbook, displayed sympathy cards on the mantle with Lily’s urn, wrote blogs and lit candles in memory of our little rescue. My husband’s grief was more privately experienced, with an occasional shared story and shed tear. It was important not to trip over each other’s grief experience.
5) Grief grows out of a relationship. Some people (and even some therapists) may dismiss the death of a pet as a lesser loss. However, as with any relationship, it is important to understand the meaning ascribed to this relationship. Often a pet serves as a companion who provides unconditional love and affection. Many clients have told me stories of the richness and depth that surrounded their interactions with their pets. For me, Lily was the piece that completed our family puzzle.
The death of a pet can be such a huge loss. These fur-family members may serve as faithful friends and playmates, enriching our lives with their magnificent and comical personalities. It is important to honor their story as it intertwines with our own narrative.
I still tear up every time I hear Eva Cassidy’s version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I imagine my curly white bundle of pure love bounding across a green field to greet me … just around the Rainbow Bridge.
Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland, and a visiting full-time faculty member in the Pastoral Counseling Department at Loyola University Maryland. Her current research examines sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer. She is working on a book titled Homegrown Psychotherapy: Scientifically Based Organic Practicesthat speaks to nature-based wisdom. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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