We have a great blessing of living with and loving animal companions. They often live in our homes, if not right outside. They even sleep on our beds with us at night. I wake up sometimes, with my kitty purring right up against my neck, as if to say “everything is perfect: right here, right now.” And she comforts me beyond whatever meaning those words hold. Simple assurance. What a gift!
So, for many of us, animals feel like family members. Or even closer than family members. When I work with people leading up to an animal’s death or just afterward, I hear them express real physical and emotional pain about losing such a strong connection and physical presence. It is a bond that is not easily described or conveyed. I support people ( in person locally, or by phone or Skype from long distances) with rituals to help ease loss. These are highly sensitive and confidential situations; understandably so.
A couple of recent blog posts have given me new insight into why mourning a pet’s departure is so tough. I’m including an excerpt from this one in the Washington Post, because it so tangibly illustrates the pattern I see (with dogs, horses or cats):
Researchers have long known that the animal-human bond is strong: A 1988 study in the Journal of Mental Health Counseling asked a group of dog owners to place symbols for their family members and pets in a circle representing each dog owner’s life. (The distance between the subject and the other symbols corresponds to the relative, real-life closeness of those relationships.) The subjects tended to put the dog closer than the average family member, and about as close as the closest family member; in 38 percent of the cases, the dog was closest of all.
And this post, about a beautiful therapy dog named Lily, moved me to tears. Dr. Tornambe’s words caused me to reflect upon the loss of my own three greyhounds. Each who died so differently: suddenly, painfully and of plain old age. He wrote about Lily’s death, “I can’t begin to describe the sorrow and grief that I am feeling right now.” And oh, how I do relate. He offers some psychologists’s recommendations for pet loss, among which is: “Rituals help healing. Have a memorial service or funeral to honor your pet and allow you to work toward closure.” And as a Life-Cycle Celebrant who believes wholeheartedly in the power of ritual, I agree. Yet I’d change the last part of the sentence from ‘work toward closure’ to ‘find the openings’. Because this act honors their essence: it is what animals help us do. They help us see openings into what is possible within ourselves and the world.
Here are a few points I can add to both of these articles about mourning a pet’s death, both from my own personal experience and witnessing others:
- Be congruent. Through your thoughts, feelings, speech and actions. Speak your heart and your thoughts to your animal companion with honesty. Then act upon those, however you see it can be healing. Either while leading up to euthanasia or after a sudden death, speak aloud whatever is in your heart. This is a kind of ritual in of itself, having to do with profound release.
- Offer gratitude. Whether grieving a horse who has carried you on countless trail rides, or a dog who has been a colossal couch potato — be present to express thankfulness to this being.
- Bless yourself and your companion. I believe we all have the power to bless. We can do this with simple oil to the forehead, nose or paws for a furry one and then the same oil to our own forehead, chest or pulse points. During grief and mourning, something this simple can be very soothing and focus thoughts during tough emotions, if even for a brief time.
- Find symbols. These are tangible objects to remind you of your companion and the spirit of your relationship carried forward after death. Keep these nearer during the hardest working stages of grief and then gradually let the symbols rest or even let them go, as you find the physical pain of separation lessens.
It is such a great privilege to live with and learn from animals, isn’t it? I’d offer how this privilege and ALL of the attendant joys outweigh the sorrows. As always though, in time.