Those of us who share our lives with animals know they have a rare and compelling ability to help us open our hearts. In their company we learn the joy of giving and receiving love without reservation—and also the stark pain of loss when someone who means so much leaves this world forever.
When you love and are loved so completely, that loss cuts to a place very deep inside. How can you make sense of the coming and going of such an important figure in your life? What can you do to ease the pain, remember the joy you shared, and get ready to open your heart again?
The answers are different for each of us, and different again with each new relationship and loss. When Tashina died I found comfort in making a scrapbook, and sending our close friends a card with her photo and a personal message about how special she was. After Savannah passed away I couldn’t rest till I’d made an altar with candles, fresh flowers, her picture, and a few special mementos. It gave me a visual sense of her presence, and of the light and love she brought to the world—and that she continues to bring.
When you lose someone with whom you’ve shared so much, what’s most important is that you grieve in whatever way feels right for you. The amount of time it takes, and the way you move through the process will be unique. I’ve collected a few ideas that have eased the way for me, and suggestions from others who have loved, lost—and healed. Tuck them away, and next time you’re faced with that impossible heartache, I hope they’ll ease the way for you.
Take care of yourself. Remember to eat and rest. Be sure that other animal family members who may be grieving also get the nourishment they need.
If someone tells you, “Oh—she was only a dog!” or, “Well, you have two other cats, so what’s the big deal?” take some distance from that friend for a while, and choose instead the company of those who understand. You’ve just lost the company of your beloved companion, the one who greeted you every day with a smile, who wanted nothing more than to be at your side. She made your life richer, put a smile on your face when you were glum, and licked your tears away when it was time to cry. Most people have few relationships in their lives that are as unequivocally loving and supportive. There’s no question that you’ll need time to adjust to the empty space on the couch, or the silence when you come through the door at the end of the day.
Remember, too, that the other animals in your family have also lost a companion. Take the opportunity to spend some extra, quality time with them. Watch for signs of grieving among them, and pay special attention to those who seem to be suffering. Accept their offers of kisses when they decide you need them. Let them lavish you with love, and show you that there’s still a reason to laugh and play.
The homeopathic remedy Ignatia is a wonderful aid in dealing with grief and loss. It will not suppress your pain, but it will soften its sharp edge and help you get through the most difficult days and nights. If other family members, including animal ones, are showing signs of grief, Ignatia may also help them get back on course. The flower remedy Star of Bethlehem is another option that can offer gentle, healing emotional support.
If you can, take some time away from your normal routine to simply be present with your emotions. Try not to avoid feeling all of the feelings as they arise, painful as they may be. Allow them to flow through you. If you feel the need, cry long and loud.
Gather up all of the photographs you have of your friend into a beautiful photo album. You’ll relive happy memories you’d forgotten, release those pent-up emotions, and have a wonderful tribute and keepsake when it’s finished.
Write, sing, or paint her story. It might describe her whole life, from puppyhood to the final days, or just your favorite afternoon with her. Whether it’s a poem, a sculpture, or a sonata you play on your piano, create something in the world that expresses who your friend was.
Notify his friends. Send a brief announcement to others who knew and loved him. You might use your poem or drawing to create a note card in his honor, and thank recipients for the happiness they brought into his life. Include a favorite photo of your loved one in his more vibrant days.
Create a shrine in your home or backyard. Include a few photos, her collar, a favorite toy, and any other mementos or symbols that are meaningful for you. If your sweetheart has been cremated, you might add her ashes when they arrive. Her shrine will create a special place where you can reflect on her presence in your life, and celebrate the wonderful creature that she was.
Be open to the possibility of his continued presence in your life. Depending on your spiritual beliefs, this may or may not seem like a reality to you. But many guardians find a great sense of comfort in an ongoing awareness of the energy of the animals who once shared their lives in physical form.
If you buried her body or her ashes on your land, consider adding a commemorative headstone, or planting a tree, bush or perennial flower to mark the site. Or create a meditation space where you can retreat to grieve, savor wonderful memories, or simply add a new, meaningful dimension to your spiritual practice.
Consider joining a support group for people grieving the loss of companion animals. Ask your veterinarian if such a group exists in your area, or check online resources. If there is no local gathering, you may wish to start one. You can be sure there are others in your community who are dealing with a loss similar to yours.
Browse through your local bookstore, library, or websites for books that will support you at this time.
Enjoy the healing friendship of other dogs. Take a neighbor’s dog for a walk, or volunteer at your local animal shelter. Offering a gentle touch to a homeless animal will be nurturing for you and for him.
Don’t underestimate the significance of your loss. Understand that grieving takes as much time as it takes—for you that may be a few weeks, or it may be a year or more. Give yourself whatever time you need. Consider it one of the ways you honor the wonderful creature who graced your life.
When the time is right—and not a day sooner—bring a new friend into your life. Adopting an animal in need of a home will bring a new source of love and joy into your life, and fill your heart with the contentment that comes from bringing happiness to another being. Ultimately, that may be the greatest tribute you can make to your departed loved one.
Most important of all, remember the loving. As painful as this time is, keep in mind that it is only painful because you loved—and were loved—greatly. There is no greater beauty in this world, and no more sacred gift we can give one another. You and your beloved friend shared that joyous bond. Allow the experience of that love to transform your pain and heal your aching heart.
Remember: You will heal, and you will love and be loved again…because that is who you are.
Adapted from The Complete Holistic Dog Book: Home Health Care for Our Canine Companions by Jan Allegretti and Katy Sommers, D.V.M. Copyright © 2003 by Jan Allegretti and Katy Sommers.