Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.
- Anatole France
There is a connection that some of us have with our animal companions that is deeper than we can express. In some ways it feels more pure than the connection we have with the humans in our lives. There is an unconditional love that makes words unnecessary. We don’t have to prove anything. We don’t have to meet any expectations. They simply love us, and we love them. We know their quirks. We know what a certain look means, a certain sound or excited pattering of feet. We know them, and somehow their presence, their presence, makes us feel more real, more loved, and more seen than the human animals surrounding us.
When death creates a separation from this love, there is a pain that makes words obsolete. Some of the people around us will never understand. Our loss isn’t understood in the way other losses are. We hear things like “it’s just a dog” or worse, people will compare the loss to a loss of their own that they see as deeper. We don’t get bereavement time for the loss of our beloved cat. Family members and friends can be dismissive and unkind, and many people feel that they must suffer this loss in relative silence.
I want to validate your feelings. The love you feel is real, and the loss is profound. I’m going to offer some thoughts about getting through this difficult loss. Please accept it in the spirit I am offering it, with understanding that everyone’s experience of grief is unique, that there are no quick fixes, and that life and love go on as long as we have breath.
Let yourself cry.
There are few things in my life that I enjoy less than crying. I hate everything about it. I hate feeling vulnerable. I hate the wetness of it. I hate the headache I get sometimes. I hate the way my eyes get puffy, and my nose gets red. I do it anyway. I remember the wisdom learned from the beloved animals around me. I remember a cat that lived in the neighborhood when I was a child. He wasn’t mine, but I claimed him, and we loved each other. His name was just “black kitty.” I don’t remember why, but something broke my heart and I cried, laying on my back (the angst of youth) and black kitty climbed up onto my chest and up to my face, and just stayed. He was present to my sadness. What I’m saying, is be present to your own sadness. Stay with yourself. The tears won’t last forever, and just like the rain, they are cleansing to the soul.
There are people who will have compassion. I’m in a Facebook group called Happy Pitbulls. Every few days someone posts a picture of a beloved animal who they had to say goodbye to. They pour out their hearts, and the responses of empathy are incredible. If people in your life do not understand, find people who do.
Respect your timing.
A lot of people will say, “just get a kitten, that will fix it.” Sometimes the distraction and new connection are exactly what is needed. Sometimes the grief a person has prevents connection with a new furry friend. Whatever you need is okay. Let people know and know it’s okay to stand up for your own needs.
Have a funeral, write a poem, sing a song, spread the ashes, make a video, build a shrine. There is no right or wrong, but the process of honoring and memorializing a deep connection can be profoundly healing.
Develop a mindfulness practice
This may seem unrelated but hear me out. One of the reasons the connection with animals is so profound for us is because they have an ever-present, non-judgmental presence. The practice of mindfulness helps us to create that within ourselves and in our relationships with other people. It’s not a replacement, but it helps.
Connect and find meaning
I don’t believe that we get over grief. I believe that we develop stronger muscles, but only if we allow ourselves to grieve, and then find new meaning. It’s like weightlifting. The weight never gets lighter, but if we provide ourselves with the right nourishment, we become stronger, and the weight becomes lighter to us. Connection and meaning are the nourishment required to make this happen. Reach out, show up, speak your truth, and connect.