By Tatiana Garrett
The holiday season is a time to be grateful for the meaningful relationships in life, but for the grieving, this time of year can be especially lonely and painful. As we know, companion animals are more than just pets—they are familymembers, and people that experience the loss of a beloved pet can go through the same bereavement as those experiencing the loss of a person.
Fortunately, pet loss support groups do exist. These environments enable people to come together with other individuals experiencing a similar loss, as knowing that you are not alone can be extremely helpful in any recovery process. Go to Tails Resource Page for a list of groups in cities around the country, or ask your veterinarian or animal shelter for local options.
I work for The Anti-Cruelty Society in Chicago and we offer a free Pet Loss and Grief Support Group facilitated by Dr. Mark Bilkey, a gerontologist at the Adler School of Professional Psychology. He has been volunteering his time twice a month for several years to provide this valuable resource to grieving pet parents. Dr. Bilkey is such a bright and positive person, and his love for animals has been compounded over the years, as several of his terminally ill human patients left their dogs to him when they passed away.
The human mind is an incredible machine and there are many schools of thought on grief within the realm of psychology. Some focus on human resilience while others recognize a multitude of stages. It’s important to understand that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. Dr. Bilkey’s advice to the grieving is to allow yourself at least a year to process your feelings. Every event could trigger something—the first 4th of July could be a reminder of how your dog used to go nuts over the fireworks. Everyone experiences loss differently.
I was seventeen when my 10-year-old little brother was tragically killed. It is the worst thing I have ever endured, and it devastated my family. I mostly remember feeling numbness the year it happened. Fifteen-plus years later, there are still times when it may as well have happened yesterday—pain or memories can be that vivid. I believe that you never really get over a tragic loss, you just learn to cope better.
More recently, I had to make the difficult decision to euthanize my cat, Ronin. He had been my loving companion for over sixteen years, but his kidney and liver had shut down and I didn’t want him to continue suffering. Ronin was one of the loving family members that had helped me through so much loss and pain, such as my brother’s death. I was a sobbing wreck the day he passed.
I share this because it’s important to support others in their times of loss and mourning. My inconsolable sobs over Ronin enveloped all the loss and pain that he had helped to see me through in his years as my faithful companion. Ronin was not just a cat—he was my friend through awkward pre-teen years; petting his soft fur brought me comfort too deep to explain. Our family had rescued him, but he chose to be my sidekick and would not tolerate the company of my older or younger brothers. As a middle child and the only girl sibling, his esteem was immeasurable to me.
While some psychologists discuss stages of grief, it is important to note that there is no specific order to mourning. If a person does experience stages, s/he may only experience some of them. Stages do not happen in a particular order and people can re-experience stages they have already been through. The five stages of grief that were identified by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her studies with terminally ill patients in the late 1960’s are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I went through all of those emotions in Ronin’s final days.
“In the anger area—usually the closest ones get it,” says Dr. Bilkey. “People can focus their anger on their veterinarian, God, or even the lost pet. The bargaining area will be where a lot of pet [parents] feel guilty. Some may have spent thousands on veterinary bills, but will still wonder: What if I had done something more? The sadness/depression phase includes thoughts about things never being the same. Never being greeted at the door, hearing the bark, or feeling the purr.”
Introspective thought and talking are two tools that can be incredibly helpful during the grieving process. If you are grieving the loss of a pet, talk with someone you trust—especially if they can share their own memories of your friend. Journaling thoughts and memories can also be very therapeutic. I asked Dr. Bilkey if he recommends that people be at a certain stage before they are ready to attend a support group and he said, “It’s all individual. Some people choose to attend even before their pet passes away to feel prepared”.
There are also many ways to channel energy from a loss into something more positive. Honor the memory of your loved one in a special way: Commemorate them in a work of art, participate in a charity walk or run in their name, or donate to a local shelter or rescue group. Dr. Bilkey recommends figuring out exactly what it is you are focusing on, such as a traumatic image or positive memories. “Our thoughts are powerful. We can create misery or release. We can be experts in either emotion, so we must be mindful of what we think about. Again, this takes time.”
To end on a positive note, I want to leave you with my favorite idea from my conversation with Dr. Bilkey: “We must honor our pets by taking their lessons of being in the moment and taking care of ourselves. Be joyful; they don’t want us to be upset. Our pets pick up on our emotions and feeling better is just a thought away so choose [your thoughts] wisely.” This one resonated with me because it has been a mantra within my family in coping with the loss of my brother, Dane. He was filled with love, hope, and promise so we want to honor his legacy with more happiness instead of allowing grief to triumph—I hope he is proud of the way my work helps people and animals.
Tatiana Garrett grew up with Borzoi, a rescued Standard Poodle, cats, hamsters, parrots, rabbits, guinea pigs, and an iguana… just to name a few pets. She began her professional career with animals in 1995 at Brookfield Zoo. She has studied wild dolphins in Australia and rescued wildlife in Florida, but people are truly at the heart of her work. If it walks, hops, or slithers, Tatiana cares about it. She currently oversees the Humane Education programs at The Anti-Cruelty Society and hosts “Chicago Tails“ on Watch312.com.