There is an ongoing trend with regard to people suffering the loss of a pet. It's nothing new nor will it come as a surprise to most because I believe that somewhere along the line many of us have experienced this reaction from people who don't understand the pain that comes with the loss of an animal companion. The trend I'm speaking of is the "it's just a dog" and/or the "get over it" mentality which has caused countless people unnecessary pain as they try to cope with their loss. It's disturbing to me personally to find so many people left with no one to turn to as they begin to adjust to life without their best animal friend. I am not a psychologist nor do I have a degree in grief counseling; it's not my intention to give instruction here. The purpose is to use my own experience as a guide to offer ideas and possibilities to those who want to help a friend or family member with their loss.
Understanding the human/animal bond isn't really necessary in order to be supportive. Liking animals isn't a prerequisite either. Caring and respect for the person who is grieving are the most important elements. As I peruse bulletin boards, mailing lists and email I am often stunned at what some grieving people are hit with when they lose their pet. The infamous, "it was only a dog" (cat, bird, ferret etc.) and the ever-popular "get over it!" are just the tip of the iceberg. Oftentimes these comments come directly from those with whom the grieving share their life - spouses, parents, relatives and friends. Unless there is a private support group to help the person in pain, they are ultimately left to deal with the loss alone, crying only when no one is around and then putting on a "happy face" to keep from being chastised or ridiculed.
I witnessed an online discussion about whether a person should or should not be present during euthanasia. I was stunned and saddened at how many people were harshly judgmental toward those who opt not to remain with their pet during these last difficult moments. It wasn't their opinions that bothered me as much as their critical attitude. Having been through the devastation of euthanasia in 1996 any many times since, in which I was present, the lack of compassion in this discussion for those who do not remain during euthanasia pained me a great deal. I can only say that in my personal opinion, the last thing anyone facing the decision of euthanasia (or those who have been through it already) needs is to be told is what they *should* or *shouldn't* do.
So...how can you help? What can you do for your friend/family member/coworker etc. when they are suffering a loss? As I said earlier, it's a matter of caring and respect. If you've never loved an animal nor were in any way bonded to a pet you may be at a loss for words of comfort. Let your conscience be your guide. Remember that the pet who is now gone from your friend's life was a big part of their world. Treat the loss as you would if your friend lost a family member because quite frankly, for animal lovers this is exactly how it is. Pets are family members. Be upfront with your grieving friend and tell them that you don't fully understand the pain of losing an animal companion but you will do what you can to lend a shoulder of support.
phrases "it was just an animal" or "go out and get another one" are
painful to the ears and heart of someone grieving the loss of an animal
companion. When someone has lost a pet there is no replacement. If and
when they are ready to bring another pet into their lives it will be on
*their* terms, not yours.
Please keep in mind that for most of us losing a pet is life-altering. Our pets are family members who have been by our side through thick and thin, often being there for us long after our fellow humans have walked away. How can the loss not alter our lives? Pet grief is not a short-term situation for most animal lovers. It is very difficult to adjust to the physical breaking of this bond when our pets pass away and we don't just "get over it" and move on. It's a process and a painful one at best. It is not anyone's place to deem when a person should be "over" their loss, we have no right to impose a timetable on someone else's grief. We are individuals and the way we handle our grief is individual as well.
Criticizing choices won't help those grieving the loss of a pet. Should the decision be made not to remain with the pet during euthanasia please remember this is a personal choice and whether or not you agree, the decision belongs solely to the pet owner. The decision to euthanize is hard enough without being criticized for what someone else thinks "should" have been done. This can be a rather touchy subject for some and I'm sure disagreement will resound throughout the animal-loving world for years to come but we must all remember that not everyone is able or capable of witnessing euthanasia. Whether or not to remain with a pet during euthanasia is not a reflection of the love that is felt by those left behind. This decision doesn't have to be understood to be respected.
If you're still at a loss to help your friend, don't hesitate to gently explain your dilemma. This in itself may be hard for them to understand initially as grief is all-consuming and tends to cloud judgment. Be patient. If nothing else, be willing to listen to your friend talk about their pet and the pain they're experiencing. Be there for them when they cry, reminisce, feel angry and cheated and when they are quiet and withdrawn. Use your own good judgment of what you know about your friend in determining how to best comfort and help them.
As a friend (family member, coworker etc.) you have certain insight to the person grieving that will aid you in how to approach them with support. Don't be put off if they reject your offering; remember, they are hurting terribly and could lash out from the anger they are feeling over their loss. Give it time and do your best. Your kindness will not be forgotten and could possibly make a difference that you can't outwardly see. Respect the wishes of the grieving to be left alone and be open to them when they no longer want to carry the pain entirely by themselves. Grieving is not a solitary emotion...it is many emotions felt nearly all at once. This is painful for the one hurting and confusing to the one offering support.
Don't give up on your friend. Even if you don't understand their reaction to the loss please be kind, patient and gentle. It doesn't take a lot of effort to do this and it could very well be the greatest gift you can give their aching heart.
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