A Special Sorrow: When a pet crosses the Rainbow Bridge

Last weekend, my family and I euthanized our cat, Smokey, after a 10 month long fight with cancer (spindle-cell sarcoma, thought to be provoked by vaccinations).  In the weeks prior, I was constantly worrying about having to make the decision on my own, as my dad travels frequently for work, and my mother was visiting friends the week before.  Fortunately, everyone was home the night we knew it was time. It is part of my grieving that inspired me to write this post and explore the emotions and societal stress of losing a beloved pet.

Rainbow Bridge

What makes the human/animal bond so uniquely special?  Is it the fact that the relationships are based  on deep, unspoken understandings? Or the fact that they are always there for you, without fail or judgement?  Whatever the reason, there is no doubt that pets and their guardians have a inimitable companionship. Like the bond itself, the sorrow  is of a special kind.

It is a difficult time that may be stricken with additional emotional baggage such as guilt and questioning one’s decisions.  We may feel burdened by the sadness, and think the pain is too much. Societal influences- such as people who try to tell us that ‘it was just a pet‘ or ‘well, just then get another one,‘ can make one feel isolated and ashamed.  But we know, the grieving is justified and is a natural, healthy reaction.

Bob Szita, a Licensed Professional Counselor in Marlboro, NJ knows that pets play multiple roles in our lives; protector, companion, confidant.  “People have a certain closeness with animals, one that is often based on an emotional connection,” explained Szita, who specializes in grief counseling.

A Loss Worth Grieving

While the death of a pet does not always impact us the way the loss of another human does, human/pet relationships are deeper than many people believe.

“Animals live with us, they follow us around, look into our eyes and purr. They are more emotionally personal with us than most anybody else,” said Szita, who offers pet bereavement counseling at his practice and also has a free pet loss hotline.

“People often do not realize the emotional connection we have with them, so when we lose them, the ties are cut and you are so surprised at how much you’re missing them.”

Whether the pet’s death be due to illness, old age, or an accident, guardians are often left with guilt, depression, sadness; a void indescribable to those who don’t share a bond with a pet. We must often confront people who try to belittle our  feelings or make us feel as though the sorrow is silly.

According to Szita, this type of behavior is common. Unless you are close with the person and feel that it is worth it to help them sympathize, you should avoid those people, or at least avoid the topic.  “If it is someone who doesn’t know the emotions that go along with having a relationship with an animal, chances are they’re not going to get it,” said Szita.

There is a saying that goes, ‘Until one has learned to love an animal, a part of their soul remains unawakened’ and it is very fitting for this.  It is an bond that cannot truly be explained it words, it must be felt firsthand and until then, such people will not understand how our souls grieve their loss.

This is Smokey 'making biscuits' with the vet techs after getting chemo.  She was always so strong and brave!

This is Smokey ‘making biscuits’ with the vet techs after getting chemo. She was always so strong and brave!

Love in Life and Death

Another aspect of losing a pet that makes the suffering stand apart is the decision to euthanize.  Euthanasia is not something typically experienced with human loss, and to make it more difficult,  animals cannot communicate to us in words how they are feeling.  Whereas elderly people tell family members that they are ready to die, have lived a full life, etc., our pets cannot offer that same condolence, so the pressure mounts on us to trust in our decisions.

Unfortunately, there is no guideline or rule of thumb to know when the time is right; it is a subjective decision pet owners must make based on their own intuition.  This decision is made all the more difficult, because animals often hide their symptoms and signs of discomfort, a natural instinct to conceal weakness to predators.  Nonetheless, our pets continue to speak to us and we must listen.

“Our animals talk to us, and although they don’t use words, we know what they’re saying, by the twitch of an ear, wag of a tail, sideways look,” Szita described.  For Smokey, it was her eyes that told us the quality of life was no longer worth it, along with changes in her breathing.

Along with being intently attuned to your pets behavioral and physical changes, it is important to keep communicating with them until the very end.

“Talk to your pet about your emotions, your decisions, and let them be a part of it,” Szita suggested.   Doing so will ‘help your emotions along’ and although it makes them more intense and overwhelming, expressing them is a positive thing.  Otherwise, our emotions may get bottled up and interfere with other aspects of our lives.  “In discussing these thoughts with our pet,  we let them know how we feel.  They’ll feel your love, your closeness.”

Much uncertainty comes with the decision to euthanize no matter what the situation.   “If we are tuned into the animal, we’ll know [when the time is right] the best that we can.  We make the decision based on what our limited senses can tell us.”   It is important to release ourselves from guilt and remember our love for him or her, and that our being with them makes it better.  “We make the life- and death- of that animal better,” Szita reminded me.

Cry, Love, Remember

Most pet owners create some sort of memorial or shrine to their beloved fur-friend; it eases the pain and helps us to remember our pet during happier, healthier times.   I suggest taking time to go through old photos and share memories of the animal’s life with those close to you.  You will probably cry, but you’ll laugh too, and undoubtedly smile lots.

Memorializing our pets, or even holding a funeral-type ceremony, is important to the healing process because as it validates our grieving.  Doing so with family or loved ones is even better.  “In doing that, you will feel like you’re supporting each other and honoring your feelings, that’s the important part,” Szitz explained.

After Smokey’s death, we buried her in our backyard, placing flowers in the bottom of her grave, and on top of it.  We scattered flower petals, lit incense, and talked about how ironic it was that as top cat of our household, she was also the smallest.  We embraced each, we cried, and then we smiled.  A ceramic cat sits atop her.

Please share your thoughts and experiences.. what does ‘a special sorrow’ mean to you?

For more information on Bob Szita’s pet bereavement line or counseling programs, click here.

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About Marissa Weber

I graduated with a BA in Communications from Monmouth University, and am thrilled to combine my passions with writing. I have been vegan for over a decade and am a board member of a pet rescue/adoption agency, so my day is filled with animal activism from sunrise to sundown! I wouldn't have it any other way. I also enjoy working on my yoga practice, world travel, and getting tattoos.

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