This is part two in my four part series on grief and pet loss. Click the link to read Part 1.
I had the chance to sit down with Becky Murray, a Licensed Professional Counselor at Veterinary Specialty Center in Buffalo Grove. We discussed the death of pets and the many ways that humans grief their furry friends. Murray agrees that grief is a “Bizarre way of being” in part because it is so different from our normal way of being. We are used to schedules, routines, and a linear way of thinking. We complete tasks and move on to the next one. Grief is not like that. With grief the thoughts, memories and feelings are not linear. They can pop into our heads at any moment. Grief is also not something you finish, and move on from; not like the events that make up our daily lives. You can’t allot a set amount of time to grieve and then say “ok I’m done, on to the next thing!” Grief is not something you can check off your “to-do” list. As anyone who has lost a loved one—human or pet—can tell you, life is not the same after the loss.
Grief and loss change people. They change life; which is not to say that life doesn’t go on. It just isn’t quite the same. There are the immediate changes—not having your furry friend greeting you when you come home from work, the empty cat bed by heater, the food bowl you don’t have to fill. And there are the larger changes; adjusting mentally and emotionally to losing your friend; the knowledge that you will not see them again (at least not in this life, in the form you are used to.) These are huge changes. It will take time.
In the days after my cats died I felt like life was never going to get better. I didn’t know how I could go on living after such a loss. According to Murray, that is normal. When we are grieving it feels like we are doing everything so poorly, she says. “After the loss of a pet your goal should simply be to function a little better each day” says Murray. You can’t compare yourself to who you were before the loss of your pet. Instead, compare yourself to who you were the day after the loss.
What is important, she says, is that you function a little bit better over time. After we euthanized Muffin I spent the next 24 hours crying hysterically. I held her bed in a death grip; I slept with her bed and some of her toys, and I cried hysterically. I did not leave my house for two days. But on the second day I went longer between crying. I didn’t cry hysterically. I was slowly finding peace settling back in my soul. Even after the tears stopped flowing, there was a sting in my heart every time I realized Muffin wasn’t sleeping on her favorite chair or next to the pillows on my mom’s bed. I knew she wasn’t but you get into habits of expectation and it takes time to break those habits. When my Sam died in 2009 I was at work. My parents called me to tell me he had passed and for weeks afterwards I panicked and tensed up every time my cell phone rang. I was terrified that something had happened to someone else.
I told Murray my stories of grieving my cats and mentioned that each time it was different. The pain was different, the thoughts and emotions were slightly different. She said that was normal. “Every loss is different” she says. This applies not just to each loss we experience—the loss of Sam left me numb and shocked for days, while Muffin’s death left me an emotional wreck—but also the how each person experiences their loss. While I cried hysterically over my cats’ deaths, other people may not cry in public. Some people want tangible memories of their cats while some don’t want anything physical to remember their cat by. Some people adopt another cat right away, some will never adopt another cat again. Murray says however you grieve “as long as it’s not hurting you, not other others it’s ok.” Each person grieves differently but most of these people are experiencing what Murray calls normal grief. Perhaps you expected to be crying hysterically, but find you can’t cry. Perhaps you don’t feel a crippling grief the way I did. That’s ok. Murray says the way we grieve is “not a measure of our love” for our pets. We all grieve differently. Don’t judge yourself if you grieve differently from your partner, your siblings, your friends.
Beyond normal grief, there is complicated grief. Complicated grief is when you find you are not getting better; you are not getting through the grief. If you find yourself dealing with complicated grief, or you know someone who is, please reach out for support. A licensed therapist can help work through the grief. However you may find that something as simple as reaching out to a support group can help with the grief.
Veterinary Specialty Center- Counseling Services – You can find books and support hotlines here.
Phone Numbers: CVMA Pet Loss Helpline and Support Group: (630) 325-1600