Grieving the Death of a Pet

I met Lily while walking the Wildwood Trail in Forest Park near the Pittock Mansion in Portland, Oregon. She sat chomping on a patch of clover paying no attention to me or my girlfriend. I knew this wasn’t a typical wild rabbit—the kind you see scurrying around the woodlands. This was a small Netherland Dwarf that someone turned loose. “You know what?” I said to my friend, “If that bunny lets me pick her up, I’m going to take her home.” Lily was accommodating, so I tucked her in the sleeve of my sweater and drove home.

Lily was a little princess, a house pet, not a rabbit to keep outside in a hutch. I loved her. She was little, cute, and spunky. She enjoyed snuggling and licking my neck with her tiny, pink tongue. And, it only took 20 minutes to potty train her in the kitty litter.

I enjoyed Lily for almost two years before I found a lump in her breast. Alarmed, I took her to our veterinarian. As I feared, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. The decision to remove the diseased breast was an easy one. I wasn’t told that rabbits often die of heart attacks coming out of the anesthesia.

And, that’s how Lily died–a heart attack. I felt horrible for not being there when she came out of surgery. Everything must have seemed scary and foreign to her. I could have comforted her–held her as she awakened. Would that have saved her? Lots of what-ifs swirled around in my mind.

I gave Lily a proper burial in our backyard. My two daughters, husband, and best friend joined me in the ceremony. I carried her blanketed body while my family and best friend followed in procession holding lit candles. At her gravesite I spoke about what Lily had meant to me, and shared stories of her antics. I thanked Lily for her unconditional love, asked for her forgiveness, and said goodbye.

Memorializing our pets help make the loss a reality. Inviting others to share in the ritual gives us an opportunity for social support during our grief journey. Other activities that encourage healing are many and may include physical activity, journaling, singing, artwork, meditation, and yoga. Many make tiny altars where they can place their pet’s ashes in urns, light candles, and view framed photos of their departed loyal companion.

When a beloved pet dies, the grief is the same as with the loss of other loved ones, perhaps not as intense or long-lasting, but it is substantial grief none-the-less. We need to develop new eyes after any kind of loss because our worldview is altered after the death of someone we love—human or animal. We need to re-examine and reorder our lives. For me, when a loved one, including a pet friend, dies it means immersing myself in the natural world by walking or running. When I’m experiencing grief, I spend an inordinate amount of time in nature, my place of solace and peace. I also surround myself with non-judgmental people who understand my loss and provide the freedom and safety for me to give sorrow words.

These days, the general population acknowledges pet loss as a legitimate grief. This hasn’t always been so and grieving pet lovers have endured comments such as “it was just a dog/cat/bird. You can get another one.” Bereavement in pet loss requires the same kind of support given to any other family member. We bond with our animals just as we bond with the important people in our lives, and our attachment levels are often very deep. Our animals provide pure, honest and unconditional love. They offer forgiveness without question, and there’s never a day that owners aren’t greeted as royalty. These traits are rare in human to human relationships and many times owning and loving a pet fills the empty places in our lives. I love the popular bumper sticker that states: “Dear God, help me to be the kind of person my dog thinks I am.”

From time to time, I revisit the grounds of the Pittock Mansion, stopping at the cyclone fence where I first spotted Lily. It is there that I feel her presence and celebrate our relationship. When a beloved pet dies, it is important that we acknowledge the loss, feel the pain, and give ourselves enough time to heal before adopting another. Grief takes time; it requires the telling of stories, shoulders to cry on, reordering of worldviews, and psychologically relocating our pet so as to enable continuing bonds.

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