Losing a pet is disenfranchised grief. We need to talk about it.

This is the fourth story in a series exploring griefhow people deal with it, cope with it, and heal from it. Click here to read the latest episode and share your own grief story with us at the bottom of this article.

I knew the day would come. Yet there was no way to fully prepare.

My family first noticed our 15 year old Yorkie, Gigi, was having trouble breathing at the end of August. Each of her breaths became more and more labored until, almost suddenly, she stopped eating, then drinking, then walking. All she could do was lie on the ground, conserving her energy for each labored, haggard inhale and exhale.

A veterinarian confirmed the worst: either Gigi had severe bronchitis, or the masses found in her lungs during a previous X-ray were cancerous and had spread. Regardless, the prognosis was the same.

It was time to say goodbye.

The pain caused by the loss of an animal occupies a unique place in the field of grief. Of course, pets aren’t people – but a lot of people love them anyway. I loved Gigi all the same.

‘This loss seems, to some people, worse than a human loss,’ advises grief counselor for pet loss Beth Bigler said. “Of course people feel guilty saying that. But the closeness of our animals, the intimacy they share in our lives and the connection, the deep feelings that exist between guardians and their animals makes this type of loss particularly difficult.”

Disenfranchised grief

Bigler describes pet loss as disenfranchised grief, or “a type of grief that’s not really openly acknowledged or socially mourned or publicly supported.” Miscarriages and divorces, she says, also fall into this category.

“In other words, no one brings a casserole dish when it comes to an animal,” says Bigler. “You don’t get bereavement leave days for that.”

Psychotherapist Stephanie Sarkis says grieving people also face judgment from those who think their grief is exaggerated or inappropriate.

In reality, the pain of losing a pet can be unbearable. According to Bigler, many people are shocked, disbelieving, sad and experiencing brain fog. Some even experience physical symptoms, like heart palpitations, stomach pain, and extreme fatigue. After all, she says, grief is exhausting.

Her son died and she felt alone. In her grief, she discovered YouTube.

Sarkis adds that pet grief can also put people at increased risk of suicide.

“For a lot of people, it’s the person they’re closest to,” Sarkis says. “Your cat or dog is there to greet you every day. It gets easier with time, but it can be just as painful as the death of a close family member, so it should be taken seriously. “

The innocence of pets also makes their loss even more heartbreaking.

“When was the last time your pet lied to you, made you feel bad about yourself, or had unrealistic expectations of you?” Bigler said. “Our animals give us unconditional love and acceptance, something many guardians have not always received in their lives.”

Of all the feelings that accompany the loss of a pet, the strongest is often guilt. Because pet owners are responsible for their pets’ medical decisions, many wonder if euthanasia was the right choice.

The night after Gigi died, I sat with my mother on the couch. We talked about the last few days. We talked about Gigi. Previously my grandmother’s dog, Gigi became ours when my grandmother moved into a nursing home and could no longer care for her.

“I knew we wouldn’t have him for very long,” my mother said. “I knew I shouldn’t get too attached. But when I looked at her, all I saw was unconditional love.

And I couldn’t help but fall in love too.”

Spiritual questions of grief

The hardest part of grieving Gigi was the spiritual doubt that followed.

In my distressed mind, I couldn’t help but wonder: Would I ever see Gigi again? Human death, at least, offered the possibility of paradise. But what about my dog? And my adorable little dog?

“Many of my clients want to know if I will ever find my loved one?” Bigler said. “Even if you’re not sure what exactly your belief is, if you find comfort in the idea of ​​reunion, let’s take comfort in that, because it supports you right now.”

The day before Gigi died, I prayed — desperately, frantically — that she wouldn’t be alone after our final goodbye.

Two people from Peaceful Pet Services came the next day to put Gigi to sleep. My family couldn’t have asked for two kinder, gentler people for this process. They let us hold Gigi on the couch one last time. We shared memories of our stay with her. We talked about her love of ribbons in her hair, her big appetite and her Halloween princess costume. We talked about how when my grandmother had a stroke, Gigi supported me while I took care of my grandmother until the next day. We talked about how much we love him.

When we were ready, they administered euthanasia. In a matter of seconds, his life and suffering were over.

Later that day, I took a nap and had a very vivid dream about Gigi. I saw her as a puppy, standing in front of our fireplace – vibrant, happy and full of life. I reached out to touch her and could feel her fur as real as if I was awake.

I don’t know what this dream means. I don’t know if that means anything. But I know that every day since, when I look at Gigi’s ashes on our fireplace mantel, the pain has gotten a little easier.

And I know that one day, when I look at them, my sorrow will turn into gratitude for that touch of unconditional love we called Gigi.

Dismissed at 50, she had lost everything: Then came the heartbreak.


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