For many who bring animal companions in to their lives, they are a mainstay, a source of comfort, support, conversation and provide a purpose. Particularly, for the population we as therapists serve, their presence can make the difference between stability and decompensation.
Benefits of Animal Companionship
Reduction of anxiety and depression.
A reason to get out of bed in the morning to walk and feed the animal.
A listening and non-judgmental ear.
Assisting with socialization with other humans.
Bonding with others who care for animals, as they may meet in a dog park, for example
Lowering of blood pressure and heart rate by stroking the animal.
Exercise as they take the animal for a walk or run.
Playing with a dog or cat can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which calm and relax.
Teaching responsibility and compassion to children, as they learn to care for the animal.
Knowing that they can make a difference in the life of the animal by providing a loving home
Many treatment programs offer animal assisted therapy, such as incorporating horses, dogs and cats into clinical interventions for those with mental health challenges, PTSD, addictions and physical illness.
Andrew Weil, MD touts the benefits of having animals in the workplace, indicating that in his own office, “Staffers are encouraged to bring their dogs and have reported that nothing breaks the ice at client meetings like the presence of a friendly pooch.”
What Happens When the Beloved Four Legged, Winged or Finned Creature Dies?
The same process that we move through when facing the death of human family or friends, exists, with one distinct difference. The loss is often minimized with the comment, “That was just an animal, why are you making such a big deal out of it?” as well as “You can always get another one.”
While perhaps well meaning, it is lacking in compassion and exacerbates the pain and may lengthen the grief process.
Throughout the years, I have needed to say goodbye to non-human companions such as turtles, goldfish, a rabbit, dogs and cats. Although, as a child, I didn’t understand the dynamics of both the finality of the physical loss and ongoing (within the scope of my own evolving spiritual beliefs) contact with those human and non-human loved ones, I still grieved in my own way.
Our childhood dog named Hukki had an uncanny way of knowing when each of us was coming home from school or work. She was my father’s running buddy and our confidante who would listen really well without judging.
With one exception, each animal died because of advanced age. The most recent, Merlin, who was a Schnauzer-Terrier mix, crossed over the Rainbow Bridge likely 15 years ago. He had developed bladder stones and diabetes, such that he required twice daily doses of insulin.
When I would give him his injections, sometimes he would nip at me, so I learned to move quickly. After a few months, the veterinarian who provided care for him said that Merlin’s condition would only worsen and that his quality of life would diminish dramatically and the end could be painful.
He offered the option of euthanasia and reluctantly, I took it. On the day that it occurred, my then teenaged son and I went to the office where Merlin had actually enjoyed visiting, since he was so social and liked playing with the other animals.
We had explained to him what was about to occur and he seemed to understand. That was my interpretation. The procedure itself was mercifully quick and we were given as much time as we needed both before and afterward. To this day, I remember them all, Hukki, Emmy Lou, Baby, Thumper, Amira and Merlin with love.
I have asked friends who have lost furry loved ones over the years and some recently to describe their experiences.
Nita Keesler is a wellness practitioner and massage therapist who has opened her heart and home to numerous animals over the years.
She says, “My animals have always been my family and mean the world to me. I often out their needs before my own. I just can’t imagine life without sharing it with them, even through inevitable heartache…as they enrich it so much.”
She always had a full house, “My first animal family after leaving home were all cats…folks called me the kitty hospice because it turned out that each that I adopted turned out to be very sick. Only one from that group lived more than two years….and she was with me for 16 of her 18 years.
She continues, “My second family, added on over the course of 10 year,s were three dogs and two cats, including my older kitty. And that transitioned slowly into my third and present family of five cats and one dog. In the mix was an old dog and cat who lived their remaining two years with me.”
The role call includes:
“Freckles, Angus, Caden, Smokey boy, Porto, Sage, Luna, Smokey girl, Deuce, Loki, Papa,Sophia…plus my first family of Lister, Elizabeth, Natasha, Sunji ,Tigerboots ,Mac…plus a hodge podge of stray kitties over the years who used my house as their home base.”
When they have died, some suddenly, Nita had this experience, “In the first family yes several were sudden…but each needed to be euthanized. I didn’t have enough time to fully bond with them but being the way I am with animals…it hit me hard. My ‘heart dog’ and ‘heart cat’…even though they were old…just about broke me. I found my cat as she was taking her last breath. I have had to euthanize four dogs and one cat in the last 5 1/2 years.”
It is quite a juxtaposition, “The spiritual side of me understands that death is a part of life. That they were comfortable and cared for here. I would still go through this pain over and over to be able to have this kind of love in my life. However, especially with six animals remaining, I am at a point that my heart needs a rest and it will be a little while before bringing in a new family member.
What Grief Looks Like
For Nita, grief looks like this, “I allow myself to cry. To rage. I watch movies of similar nature when I feel I can’t get it all out. I have tried a pet grief support group…I loved sharing and interacting with the other pet parents but I didn’t resonate with the leader. It helped me to help others who were going through it for the first time.”
She adds, “And the biggest important factor for me is that I am surrounded by other animal lovers who’ve gotten it’ or at the very least people who care about me even if they are not an animal person themselves. No one has said anything like ‘it is just a dog/cat….get over it’.
Other animals in the home grieve as well. Nita shares:
“Mostly they have transitioned well. However, with the one old dog here for two years…he kept everyone in line so my remaining old and young dog seemed lost for three months.
My one old cat was the kitty chaplain. She always helped comfort the dying dogs and those of us who remained. She passed five months ago, so with my old dog passing this month…we all feel lost.
And then three of my kitties have stepped up and basically they and my young dog and myself just kind of huddle together. My young dog has not been without doggie pals since he got here. He had separation anxiety which is why he lost his last home (who had rescued him from a bad situation). I am being very cognizant of his needs. Right now, he mostly wants to sleep.”
Her guidance for those who have had the loss of a beloved pet:
“Surround yourself with people who understand. Find a pet grief support group. Or start one. And whether you do or don’t try that, let yourself feel the pain. Honor it. It doesn’t really help me when someone tried to tell me, in comfort, ‘you have him/her a good life’ just after they passed. Knowing they mean well. At that moment we just need to grieve. Not busy ourselves or get over it. These, for many of us, are our babies. And certainly our every day. I have heard grown men and every walk of life say they have cried more for their pet than family members. But of course…our pets are our everyday unconditional love. And if we have been giving hospice care to them., there is an even bigger void.”
She strongly suggests, “Please don’t rush to fill that void, whether with activity or another pet. Likewise, please don’t shut yourself off to not having future animals because the pain is too much. It hurts because the love and companionship was so great.”
Nita encourages those who witness the loss, “Please keep being supportive. Offer presence. Sometimes there are no words. Sometimes just going for a walk or sitting together to watch a movie might be enough. Or simply ask “How may I help you through this?” And never say “It’s just a pet…get over it already.”
That will not only not help…it can make the person feel like they are doing something wrong and/or damage their trust and relationship with you. I know several people who have dealt with that. Those people have sought me out for comfort, even if they don’t know me well, because they felt safe to express their sadness.
She continues, “It doesn’t really matter if the pet is young or old…if we have to euthanize them or if we find them or even if they crawl into our laps to die…or if they go off and hide to do it. Or what kind of pet it is. The pain is just as deep. As one man put it…’pick your poison’.”
Another component with pets…is the balancing act; not wanting to give up on our pets too soon (or…lose them too soon) and not wanting them to suffer. From talking with many people, this is one of the toughest and emotionally exhausting. When they are old and/or have health issues…we very often find ourselves in a pattern of ‘checking to see if they are breathing’ and our hearts feel like they stop in those moments until we see their chest and belly rise…then we breathe again before we go about the day.
Another who shared his story is Tom Ziemann, a writer, speaker, minister and manager, who has welcomed many furry family members into his home and heart. Their names were Pony Cat, Tiggy, Winny and Max. It is his dapper Tuxedo cat Max about which he speaks so eloquently. He describes the last day of Max’s life.
“I mourn today the passing of another cherished family member, my poor Max. Renal failure got the best of this gorgeous, beloved Tuxedo. His body finally could fight no more. I was glad I didn’t have to be asked to make the final decision. He looked peaceful when I picked him up from the vet, his body still warm, eyes open.”
He adopted Max from a colleague and there was an immediate bond between them. This cat had a healing effect on everyone who crossed his path and was referred to as “a one in a million creature.”
Since Max’s death, Tom relates, “I realize some people won’t “Get It.”
They can’t understand the sheer heartache about losing a loving, devoted pet. If I hear another callous person say; “Dude, it was a fricken’ cat. Grow a pair,” I’m gonna go off on them. The death of a pet can be just as poignant as that of a friend or family member.”
He reminds us that, “Pets, like friends, offer magical healing on ones’ body, mind and spirit. Studies have shown that the mere petting of an animal releases beneficial serotonin and other healing chemicals into the blood stream. We feel good when we demonstrate love towards anyone, whether they have two legs or four. They have an uncanny knack, and a sense of knowing when we are in pain as well. Dogs are supremely keen in this arena. Death is something each of us must deal with in our own way.”
What complicated his grief is that he experienced half a dozen deaths in less than six months. That included his parents, two cats by marauding coyotes and one to old age.
He says, “By sharing my experience, I hope it will offer some insight and perhaps give some solace and peace to those who have felt death’s painful grasp or may experience it in the future. Times like these are difficult. We must all process and learn from our experiences in our own way. We continue on our course, striving to make our own lifetime contributions.
Coming to terms with my grief is being channeled through cherishing the great memories and remembering the good times. The funny things that I witnessed are the keys for me in facing pain, loss and suffering. It’s been said that grief never truly ends… it changes. It’s a passage we all must endure. Definitely not a place to dwell. It’s not a sign of weakness or even a lack of faith. It’s the heavy price of love and a measure of how deeply we love and are loved. Well worth it.”