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Living After Loss

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"Living After the Loss"
By Ashlie D. West, MSW

When we first bring home our new furry friends, we do not think of the fact that one day they will be leaving us. Rather, we focus on the joy and excitement of having a new member of our family, to love and cherish. Unfortunately, there will be the day that we must confront losing our friend, whether through death or having to re-home him/her. Either way, losing our loved one is a difficult experience, filled with varying emotions (guilt, anger, sorrow, and/or despair). How we handle that loss depends on many factors, including the nature of the loss, whether the loss was sudden or expected, and the support we receive following the loss. The healing process varies across individuals, and there is no specific length of time it will take to heal. It is important to recognize that grief is a difficult process to work through, so you need to be patient with yourself and seek assistance from friends and loved ones, as you feel comfortable.

Although each person experiences loss in their own unique way, there are theories regarding the stages of grief. The National Family Caregivers Association identifies four stages of grief:

  • Shock and numbness: Usually occurring soon after a death, this is evident when the person finds it difficult to believe the death has occurred; is feeling stunned and numb.
  • Yearning and searching: As shock and numbness recede, there remains the tendency to "forget" the loved one has died. Perhaps one catches a glimpse of something who reminds them of the deceased, or you expect them to be there when you first arrive home.
  • Disorganization and despair: As the reality of the absence of the loved one who died settles in, it is common to feel depressed and find it difficult to think about the future. You may be easily distracted, or have difficulty concentrating and focusing on any one task.
  • Reorganization: As one slowly makes the adjustment to all the ways in his or her life that have changed as a result of the loss, a sense of reorganization and renewal begins to evolve. Life is forever changed after a significant loss, but you slowly learn how the different aspects of your life become reprioritized as you "pick up the pieces" and begin to move on. It is not that you forget about the one who died, but you have begun to learn how to live with this knowledge. (Retrieved 1/19/2006 from

Some people may experience all of these stages, while others may experience just a few. In addition, the length of time in each of the stages will vary as well. Again, it is important to allow yourself time to heal and adjust to the loss of your loved one.

A further complication for losing a pet is that we may feel ashamed to be grieving over an "animal". Society does not support the loss of a pet as they would a human. Unfortunately, some people do not see the value in loving (and being loved by) a pet, and may expect you to simply "get over it". Do not feel shame over your grief. Your loss is real and your grief is valid. Allow yourself to take the time to heal, and know that there are many people who have been through a similar loss, and are willing to support you during this difficult time (see below for a list of online resources for grieving the loss of a pet).

There are some things that you can do to help you move through the grieving process and ease some of the emotional distress:

What should I do with my pets remains?

There are several options for handling your pets remains, depending on your preference and the laws of your town. Some people may choose to bury their pet in their yard or a special location. You will need to make certain that the selected area does not have special ordinances regarding burial. Another option is cremation. This allows you further options, including spreading the remains in a selected location, or keeping them with you in an urn. Take the time to select the method that you are most comfortable with, and what best fits your lifestyle. For example, some people do not have a permanent home or may frequently move. Having the remains cremated will allow those individuals to take their pet with them to future destinations, if that is something that they feel is important; while others may feel better knowing their pet has a final resting place.

Is it silly to have a funeral for my pet?

Absolutely not. Rituals are a very important part of healing. Although different cultures have varying beliefs and values, all cultures have rituals that are important to them. Depending on your own values, beliefs, and comfort level, it may be helpful to have a special way to say goodbye to your pet. For some, it may be helpful to say a prayer over the remains, while others may simply burn a candle in their pets memory. Whatever you feel most comfortable doing, make sure you give yourself a time to say goodbye.

What do I do now?

As stated before, grieving takes time. Unfortunately, it is not something that will happen overnight. It is a slow process and takes time and work. Over time, however, things will improve, and you will see that you are able to return to your routines and feel a sense of "normalcy". Here are some things that you can do to help with the grief over time:

  • Acknowledge emotions as they arise - allow yourself to cry, or talk things through as you need to
  • Seek out others who will listen
  • Consider some form of self-expression - journaling, poetry, music, or art
  • Donate time or money to a charity in your pets honor
  • Create a scrapbook or album of your pet
  • Plant a living memorial garden
  • If you are feeling guilt (which is a normal reaction), force yourself to stop those thoughts, replacing them with positive statements ("I loved my pet, and she/he loved me".).
  • Remember the good times - share those memories with others, or write them down for yourself.
  • When you are ready, think about bringing in another member to your family - adopting a rescued ferret is an excellent way to honor you lost pet.

While losing a loved one is difficult, and takes time to overcome, the love and joy of having a furry companion far exceeds the negative. Take time to remember all the good times, and the moments that were special between you and your pet. For as long as you remember and share your love, your pets memory will live on.

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