As long as I can remember we have always had a pet at home. Pictures of me as a baby included pictures with puppies, kitties, bunnies, and even a goat at one point. Looking back, I can see there was a gradual shift from our pets being more outside to being more domesticated and coming inside. We went from feeding every feral cat in the neighborhood to having one or two domesticated cats at a time. We went from having a ton of dogs to one or two family dogs. I’m not sure what led to this shift but it happened. As our family shifted to having more domesticated pets, the grief we experienced when losing a pet became stronger. Each animal became more like family.
Animals were always a pivotal part of my life but especially during my transition from young adolescence to young adulthood. When I moved out into my own place with my young daughter I longed for a pet at home. Our homes didn’t feel like a home without the presence of something furry. So, one October day in 2004 we found a little black kitty through the local animal shelter and brought her home. We named her Cleo.
Cleo was such an amazing kitty. She let my little daughter Riley love on her and she never scratched her or ran away from her. In fact, Cleo was unlike many cats and would come when called. Cleo came with us as we moved from different apartments and houses. She was mainly an indoor cat but would venture outside from time to time. She never wandered too far away. She knew where her home and family were. As we aged so did Cleo. I watched her go from this scrawny kitty to a plump young cat to eventually a thin ragged-looking elderly cat.
Earlier this year Cleo started stumbling and eating less and withdrawing more. Her eyes looked sunken in and she had a mass under her chin. She only weighed about 3 pounds. By this point, Cleo was an astonishing 15 years old. I had never had a pet live this long. I knew her time in this world was coming to an end. We were able to take pictures of her with family and Riley came with me as we made that dreadful drive to the vet to have her euthanized. Our vet created such a loving environment for us. There was a candlelit in the office when we arrived with a framed statement indicating that there was a family present who was having their pet euthanized and they requested silence in the building. I knew when I saw this, it was for us. We were taken back to room and Riley and I held Cleo as the vet walked us through what would happen as she delivered the medications. As we held Cleo and the medications were delivered she went limp and lifeless. We were given time to cry and were led quietly out a back door.
I write about this experience for several reasons. First, Rainbow Bridge Remembrance Day is approaching on August 28. This is not a holiday many people are familiar with like Christmas or Easter. But nonetheless, it is a day set aside to remember our beloved pets who have passed before us. This day was founded by Deborah Barnes, in tribute to one of her cats who passed away in 2013. This day is set aside to celebrate our past pets. But I also write about this because the grief that comes with the loss of a pet often goes unnoticed. Grief of all shapes and sizes are valid and important and real. Acknowledging this can be a powerful tool in the grieving process.
Grief when losing a pet can feel different because the interactions with pets are different. Often times people use words like unconditional love and loyalty when describing their pets. Pets can play roles in our life like a surrogate family member, or companion. In a world full of agendas, conflict, strain, and pressure, the interaction with a pet can provide relief from these moments. Grief is complex enough but when you couple it with the fact that grief is hard for many people to talk about, grief over losing a beloved pet can be minimized and feel isolating. Kenneth Doka, Ph. D. called this type of grief “disenfranchised grief.” This is when a loss is dismissed, not acknowledged, or not recognized by others. Healing from any loss is often found through telling our story or rituals around the death. However, when a loss is dismissed or minimized these opportunities are often nonexistent thus having an impact on grief.
If you have lost a dear pet or know someone who has, there are things you can do to help with the grief. Take some time to honor your beloved pet on Rainbow Bridge Remembrance Day. There are also some organizations that offer counseling and support groups for bereaving, hotlines and websites catering to this type of loss and books about the loss of a pet.
Creating something in honor or memory of the lost pet can also be helpful. As we celebrate Rainbow Bridge Remembrance Day here are some ideas and resources to remember your beloved pet.
- Pet Shadow Box
- Pet Memorial Ston
- DIY Paw Print
- Photo Collage or Photo Blanket
- Memorial Plate
- Collar Candle
- Pet Memorial Planter
The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement: https://www.aplb.org
Pet Loss Support and Resources through the Veterinary Teaching Hospital of Colorado State University: http://csu-cvmbs.colostate.edu/vth/diagnostic-and-support/argus/Pages/resources-online.aspx
On the Pet Loss Support Page: https://www.pet-loss.net various articles can be found about pet loss. Such articles include pieces by author Moira Anderson Allen, M.Ed., including “Ten Tips on Coping with Pet Loss.”
Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine: https://www.vetmed.wsu.edu/outreach/pet-loss-hotline/support-for-bereaved has an informative article called “Supporting People Who Are Grieving.”
Recommended books to cope with losing a pet:
Goodbye, Friend by Gary Kowlaski
Saying Goodbye to the Pet You Love by Lorri A. Greene, Ph.D.
Grieving the Death of a Pet by Betty Carmack
Pet Loss: A Spiritual Guide by Julia Harris
Cold Noses at the Pearly Gates by Gary Kurz
When Only the Love Remains by Emily Margaret Stuparyk
Three Cats, Two Dogs: One Journey Through Multiple Pet Loss by David Congalton
For children and teenagers:
Dog Heaven and Cat Heaven by Cynthia Rylant
Tear Soup by Pat Schweibert
For Every Dog an Angel and For Every Cat an Angel by Christine Davis