Mourning the loss of a pet

As a counsellor, I work with bereavement, personal losses and relationships of all kinds. Aside from my work as a counsellor I am an ardent animal lover and have worked voluntarily for many years as a cat fosterer and rehoming coordinator for a small animal rescue, so when the opportunity arose to take a specific pet bereavement course, although I vowed never to write another assignment again after finishing my degree, I find myself part way through writing 8 assignments. It seems a counsellor’s work is never done!

I regularly find my role in the rescue and my role as a counsellor intertwine. When someone approaches me about rehoming a pet it is often because they are now ready to take on a new animal after suffering the loss of a much-loved pet. I always spend time with my prospective adoptees on the phone and on home visits to allow the space for their previous pets to be talked about and find people enjoy the opportunity to talk about their pets with someone who understands the close bond we experience with our pets and the depth of feeling the loss of our pet companions can bring. I hear people say they can’t bear the gap in the home and wish to fill it immediately with a new pet to love, to some who struggle with the idea of taking on a new pet as it can feel like a betrayal of their past pet’s memory and a final act of letting go. There can be a genuine fear of loving a pet so wholeheartedly again knowing the loss can be so unbearably painful.

When we lose a pet we mourn several losses, they become our companions giving us unconditional love providing familiarity and secure routines in our daily life. We become parental caregivers to our pets, looking after their well-being and making choices for them which can leave us lost when they pass away.

This sense of responsibility for the wellbeing of our pets can weigh heavily when the time comes to face difficult choices about end of life. Our fear of loss can make us blind to our pet being unwell and we may delay in taking our pet to the vets resulting in feelings of guilt and self-blame; if we had acted sooner the outcome may have been different. We may feel anger aimed at ourselves or others involved, replay scenarios in our minds where the outcome may have been different if other choices had been made. We may avoid places or things that remind us of our pet and have a strong desire to be reunited, still feeling the presence of our pets in the home, catching a glimpse out of the corner of our eye or hear their footsteps on the floor.

As a counsellor, rescue worker and animal lover I can appreciate that each person who is struggling with their loss had their own unique relationship with their animal friend. Grief is an individual process which needs to be allowed, we do not all grieve the same way within the same timeframe and we can feel pressured to move on. It can be difficult to be heard in our grief when others say ‘it’s just a pet, get another’ when we have experienced unconditional love from our pet that is sometimes not on offer so readily with some of our human relationships. Pets take a place in our family unit and in some cases can be our only source of company and interaction.

Given our deep relational attachments to our pets and the grief we feel, the loss of a much-loved pet cannot be underestimated. In working together, allowing space to grieve your loss, acknowledging your feelings, processing your memories and reorganising your life around your loss in your own unique and individual way some peace and acceptance may be reached. Our pets never leave us, they leave pawprints on our hearts.

The Rainbow Bridge Poem

Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge. When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all our special friends, so they can run and play together. There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable. All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigour. Those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in your dreams of days and times gone by. The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind. They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent. His eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster. You have been spotted and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart. Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together…

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