I had to have my cat put to sleep recently. His illness was sudden, aggressive and short, mercifully. He was a loving companion for 15 years and these last couple of weeks I have felt the normal range of emotions we experience with grief: depressed, lacking in energy, guilt, anger, moments of disbelief expecting him to walk through the door, anxiety. I have also felt strangely displaced, not interested in the things I usually enjoy in life, and a sense of meaninglessness in my life.
We can forget that the death of a pet can be just as painful as losing a family member or friend. Yet when we start to experience the pain of the loss, well-meaning people around us can say ‘well it’s only a cat’. This might lead us to not take it so seriously, and not set aside time to process the loss. For some, perhaps where the pet is an only companion, or the loss was traumatic, the pain is greater.
Yet when we lose someone close to us, animal or human, we need to allow ourselves time and space to grieve. Otherwise, we risk bottling it up (again) and carrying it into the future, where the task becomes harder still. There is no right way to grieve, it is a highly personal process, and we all do it in our own way: for example, some of us cry a lot, others don’t. Nevertheless, whether I am working with myself or others, I find J. William Worden’s model of the ‘four tasks of mourning’ useful rather than focussing on what we expect to be going through, it suggests what we need to do to manage the loss in our life.
Worden suggests that there are four tasks we must accomplish for the mourning process to be completed satisfactorily to allow us to find a new normality. This model is flexible in that it is not linear, the tasks do not have to be completed in order, and we may find ourselves jumping to one and later revisiting another.
Firstly, we need to accept the reality of the loss. It is natural for there to be a sense that it hasn’t happened, but this first task is to recognise rationally and emotionally, that the companion is dead and will not return. Rituals help with this; burying the pet’s body or ashes in your garden, for instance.
The second task is to process the pain of grief. Many of us cope by keeping busy, and modern life makes that easy. Yet we need to allow time and space to let the pain move through us, and being around supportive people who validate our feelings will help us to work it through.
Thirdly, we have to adjust to a world without our loved one. This might require external, internal and even spiritual adjustments. We might have to dispose of our pet’s paraphernalia, and also find ways to use the time that used to be spent with the animal. If we have other pets, it is important to give them extra attention and maintain their routines, as they will have their own grief. Internally, we must adjust our own sense of self without that relationship in our life. Spiritually, even the death of a pet can challenge our sense of meaning and leave us feeling a little directionless.
Finally, we need to find a lasting connection with the deceased pet whilst moving forward with our new life. Essentially, we need to find a way to stay connected with Harvey or Smudge, but without preventing us from getting on with life; so that we can enjoy life again, whilst also enjoying memories, thoughts and feelings about our loved one.
Of course, these tasks also apply to people we love and by accomplishing the tasks we can reach a place of acceptance and move on with life again. But if you find a death is challenging you beyond your ability to cope, getting support from family, friends, clergy or a professional will help.
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