Truly grieving for a pet still seems to be somewhat “taboo” in our society. I don’t understand why. There are some of us who simply function better with animals in our lives and who form deep bonds with our pets; it’s only natural that when we lose them, we will feel a real sense of grief and loss.
I grew up an only child, so it is perhaps no surprise that our toy poodle, ChaCha, provided great emotional and physical comfort to me particulary when I was unable to seek comfort from other people. In fact, ChaCha came into our lives because, as a four year old, I was having trouble sleeping. The doctor suggested a furry companion might help so my parents brought ChaCha into our household. As the doctor suspected, this little pooch certainly did help me, but in so many more ways than with just my sleep issues. More than anyone probably knew, ChaCha saw me through some very lonely days and very long nights. Right up until I was 18 years old, when we lost her to congestive heart failure. Although I was unable to express my feelings very openly at the time, I was absolutely heartbroken. I could not sleep in my bed for many nights because ChaCha was no longer there. I bottled up all of that grief and, boy, did it hurt. I didn’t want to feel that way again. But when I lost my second dog Annabelle in July 2013, I found myself feeling that familiar, heartbreaking pain.
After ChaCha died, I lived without a canine companion well into my adult years. In 1999; however, I felt I was ready for the responsibility and companionship of another dog and that is when Annabelle came bounding into my life. She was also a toy poodle and, like ChaCha, helped me through some major ups and downs. She was a great source of emotional comfort, helped me feel calm when I was stressed, and made me laugh as I watched her quirky antics that were a by-product of her unique personality. I am not a “touchy-feely-huggy” person, but I could always give Annabelle a “squidge” and it instantly made me feel better. She was there when I came home for lunch; when I came home after work, she was often looking out the front window waiting for me to pull in the drive. When I had to say goodbye to her on July 1st, 2013 it was a pain that took my breath away but, unlike I had done when ChaCha died, I didn’t want to bottle up this grief. I knew that didn’t work. This time, I needed to allow myself to feel all the sadness and all the pain.
After I lost Annabelle, I missed two days of work, three including the July 4th holiday. At the time, I was working for a gentleman who proved more sympathetic than I expected which was fortunate as I was a mess. It was still difficult dragging myself into the office on that Friday morning, but the three days away from the office certainly helped make my return a little more tolerable. Because I still had to muddle my way through the work days while grieving, I relied heavily on my strategy of taking life in small chunks. I would go to work in the morning thinking, “just have to make it ’til lunch, then I can go home, have another crying session, then just need to make it ’til 5:00.”
Had I worked at my previous job, I fear coping with my grief would have been more difficult. My previous manager had lost two dogs during the time I worked with her but you would never know it. Her philosophy was just get to work and deal – which is fine if that works for you, but I’m not wired that way. Unfortunately, she also had a tendency to make those of us who did not function this way feel guilty for feeling sad or upset when we were side-swiped by one of life’s not-so-pleasant moments. And, I get it. Life does go on, but life also happens and sometimes the healthiest thing you can do is take a few days and deal with it away from the office.
In addition to taking time away from work and mentally breaking down my days into manageable chunks, I was also helped through the grieving process by finding different ways to honor Annabelle’s memory. I wanted to be sure I did this in a way I felt was deserving of a family member who had brought us so much joy. Once I received her cremains, I decided to purchase a proper urn, engraved with her name and a phrase of our choosing. It is possible that we will be moving from this house in the future, so I wanted to be sure I could take Annabelle with us wherever we go. I also found an online company that will transfer your favorite digital pet photo onto a canvas with the option of personalizing the final product. Looking for those items, taking care of Annabelle’s cremains and making sure her memory is preserved in a tasteful manner has been a great comfort to me in a way I never expected.
So, in all that rambling, the main points I wanted to make are these:
You are not weird or a “freak” if you love your pets and think of them as family.
You are not weird if you feel true grief at the loss of your pet. They were a part of your daily routine, probably always by your side, of course you will feel “real” grief. If you accrue vacation or sick leave and you work with sympathetic people, it may be beneficial to take a few days off. Explain that if you can just have a couple of days to work through some of your grief then you’ll be more productive upon your return. They don’t have to understand completely or pretend like they know how you feel, as long as they’re supportive. If you do not work with sympathetic people, then take a couple of “mental health” days. Call in sick. Perhaps that’s not the best advice, but in a world where pet grief is sometimes not taken seriously, you have to do what you can to take care of yourself.
Do something to memorialize or honor your pet – something that will bring you comfort. Don’t feel embarrassed or ashamed for wanting to memorialize your companion in some way. There are many options available particularly online and this is something you can continue to do throughout the years, even as your grief subsides. Although I lost Annabelle in 2013, I still seek ways to keep her memory close. I just ordered a pet memorial necklace. It is a simple design from a store on Etsy, but it will mean the world to me (you should check out Etsy if you’re interested in this idea – just enter “pet memorial jewelry” in the search bar).
In closing, I wanted to address the topic of bringing another pet into your life. I have not sought out another dog because I am not ready. It is still too soon for me. I am fortunate in that I still have my cat Josie by my side which makes that decision a little easier. She came to live with me nearly a year after Annabelle and has become more of a comfort since losing Annabelle. The other reality for me is that I don’t know if I can take the pain of losing another dog. Perhaps that’s the cowardly way out, but the 14 years I had with Annabelle went by so quickly and the day that I had always dreaded, even when she bounced into my life as an unkempt furry puppy, arrived much too soon. When and if you bring another dog into your life is, of course, an entirely personal preference. Only you will know when the time is right, but please allow yourself time to grieve your loss. You wouldn’t want to compare your new pet to the one you just lost. That wouldn’t be fair.
If you have recently experienced pet loss, you have my deepest sympathy. I know it hurts. I still miss Annabelle every day and, while I am certainly not an expert in the psychology of grief, I wanted to share some coping strategies I found helpful.
I hope you take care of yourself, give yourself permission to grieve your loss, find a way to memorialize and honor your pet, and give yourself time to heal a little before you bring another furry companion into your life.