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Saying Goodbye to Your Angel Animals
Finding Comfort After Losing Your Pet
By Allen Anderson, Linda Anderson
New World LibraryCopyright © 2008 Allen and Linda Anderson
All rights reserved.
I miss the little wagging tail; I miss the plaintive, pleading wail; I miss the wistful, loving glance; I miss the circling welcome-dance. — Henry Willett, "In Memoriam"
A light has left your world — the light of innocence, of friend-ship, of a love that did not restrict or bind. Consequently, the loss of your animal friend may mean that the intensity of sadness you feel is greater than any you have ever known. This is why it is so important to allow yourself to grieve and heal in your own way and time.
You are an individual. The animal who shared your life was an individual. Death or loss of an animal is a one-time experience.
Grieving is an ongoing passage toward healing and reconciliation. In Kindred Spirits, Dr. Allen Schoen writes, "Grief has no timetable. It is a journey filled with peaks and valleys. Just when you think you are getting over your loss, a fresh wave of pain pulls you back. But grieving is part of the human experience; it is a journey to a new stage of life".
Because you are unique, we suggest that you engage in what we call organic grieving. With organic grieving there is only one rule or guideline for mourning: use whatever naturally alleviates your stress and pain without harming yourself or anyone else or breaking any laws.
Organic grieving enables you to find the most effective and natural ways to restore yourself and rebuild your life after the loss of a beloved animal companion. This means giving yourself permission to mourn loss in ways that originate from your essence, your spirit, your unique self. Organic grieving emanates from the core of your being, where the essence of what you honestly feel and believe about life and death resides. There are no "shoulds or "have-tos" with organic grieving. You simply do not allow anyone to take away your right to grieve in ways that fit most naturally with your physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual makeup.
Your methods and the amount of time it takes for you to grieve and to heal may look strange to someone who isn't inside your skin or who hasn't loved as you have loved. So be it. You don't have to justify your thoughts and feelings over the loss of a pet. We wholeheartedly agree with what the pet bereavement counselor and author Jamie Quackenbush says in When Your Pet Dies. He writes, "Experience your emotions, don't fight them or judge them, and ignore people who try to do that for you. No matter who you are, your bereavement over a pet's death is necessary, a natural process that will help you in the long run".
Blue represents the color of your sadness and grief. Rainbows linger after storms, their colors brightening a once gloomy sky. Short waves of white light create the inner edge of a rainbow by penetrating raindrops and reemerging as the color blue. Yet to see the rainbow's brilliant colors, we must be standing with our backs to the sun.
Like the rainbow's shortest waves, animal companions are white lights who are with us only for a comparatively brief amount of time. While on earth, they have reflected back our best and wisest selves. Now a beloved pet's death has blotted out the sun and revealed the blue of sadness with alarming clarity. Blue becomes the first color of the rainbow that we see. Organic grieving will help you experience the blue of sorrow in a natural way.
PHASES OF ORGANIC GRIEVING
Many excellent books and research studies have shown that human beings tend to experience a set of emotions and follow a pattern of behaviors that can be grouped into what are known as the stages of grief. It's good to know about these stages and their characteristics, so if you go into a rage around your house and kick wastebaskets against the wall after your pet dies, you'll know that you aren't going crazy. Anger is one of the stages of grief — a normal reaction to loss.
By not imposing any preconceived ideas about what you should be feeling at a given time after a loss, organic grieving gives you leeway to experience whatever you want at the point when it naturally occurs. The thoughts and feelings of a particular phase can last for a minute or a month. Various aspects of grief may pop up like jack-in-the-boxes when you least expect them. For example, it's normal to feel shock, numbness, and denial as an initial reaction to the death of a loved one. It's also normal not to feel any of those things until much later, or to experience them repeatedly in varying waves of intensity.
Organic grieving follows your natural rhythms for handling pain and loss. When you're upset, do you usually cry? Lash out at others? Do you grow quiet and withdrawn? Is your first reaction to turn to God or pray for strength? Grieving organically will enable you to let your natural impulses run their course rather than trying to box yourself into an "acceptable" stage of grief for a "reasonable" period of time. An understanding of organic grieving will also help you to deal with possible incongruent grieving among your family members — that is, the possibility that you won't all grieve in exactly the same way. Although you and your spouse, for example, may both be hurting mightily over the loss of your family pet, you could be grieving organically in entirely different ways. That can make you feel out of sync with or judgmental about each other, even though both of you have been deeply affected by the loss.
In the next few sections, we list some of the most prevalent stages of grieving that experts on the subject have agreed are common, with a few examples of how each stage might manifest itself after the loss of an animal companion. But again, remember, however you normally react to loss is your own organic way of grieving.
Shock, Doubt, and Denial
This is the "I can't believe my friend is gone" phase of grieving. It's nature's way of boarding over the windows to keep the high winds of grief and loss from shattering the glass and blowing through the house. But those boards of denial also keep you temporarily from seeing the reality of the storm. Shock, doubt, and denial can take the form of prolonging the suffering of an animal when you can't allow yourself to believe that it's time to let go. After the loss, this aspect of grieving can leave you walking around in a daze, unable to accept that your pet is gone. Customary habits, such as picking up the dog's leash before going for a walk or expecting to wake up to a raspy pink tongue licking your arm, are still as real to you as they were when your animal companion was alive.
Denial, shock, disbelief, even skepticism are natural reactions to pet loss. These feelings can be worsened if you didn't get to see the animal after death or if the pet has wandered off or been stolen. You may not have had enough closure to convince yourself that the animal won't be returning. When reality is too harsh and painful, it's a natural survival mechanism to refuse to admit that your worst fears have come true.
But when does denial become dysfunctional?
The pet bereavement counselor and author Julia A. Harris writes in Pet Loss: A Spiritual Guide, "Denial becomes abnormal when an individual is convinced that some action can be performed to bring back the lost life. I do not refer here to the belief in a life after death. Considering your pet spiritually alive and ascending toward divinity for reincarnation, transmutation, or resurrection, and believing that communication with your pet is possible, [do] not indicate denial of the fact that your pet has crossed the threshold from physical existence into the realm of death". A more hard-nosed therapist or veterinarian might not give you so much leeway on the subject of the normal range of denial, but we tend to agree with Julia Harris. If you know your pet's physical body is dead, but you have felt a continuing spiritual presence, that doesn't mean you're in denial. You may be experiencing, firsthand, the knowledge that even death cannot extinguish the love and the spirit of an animal.
Anger, Confusion, Resentment, and Blame
Anger takes many forms. You could be mentally making a list of everyone, including yourself, whom you hold responsible for your animal companion's death. Your thinking could be muddled and confused as you try to make sense out of something that, right now, seems senseless. Resentment may be consuming you with its ability to keep at bay the more debilitating emotion of heart-wrenching sadness. You might be unreasonably irritated with friends, co-workers, or strangers. You could feel irrational anger toward the pets in your family who lived while another died and, consequently, withdraw from the surviving animals.
In chapter 5, we'll talk more about anger and how to deal with it. For now, suffice it to say that it's important to recognize, accept, and release anger in constructive ways. Activities such as punching pillows, writing in a journal about your rage, and screaming where no one can hear you allow angry and resentful feelings to dissipate naturally.
Guilt, Bargaining, and Regret
It's almost impossible for someone who has loved and lost a pet not to feel guilty and have regrets. Upon the death of the animal, you might find yourself wondering if you did everything you could have. Did I feed the animal the right food? Did I provide the best and safest environment? Did I let the animal suffer too long or too much? The questions go on and on. Yet dwelling upon your regrets causes despair and guilt to deepen.
To ward off regret, blame, and guilt, you may have tried to bargain with the vet, with the animal, or with God in an effort to prolong your pet's life. Perhaps you cried and pleaded for your best friend not to leave. In anticipatory grief, you may have attempted to stave off the terrible sadness and loneliness that you knew were coming. The professional bereavement counselor Wallace Sife, PhD, writes in The Loss of a Pet, "By having to become the angel of death to that beloved pet and extension of ourselves, we are each tasting a bit of our own death, which is always upsetting. We are realistically forced back into the aloneness of our life journey, despite all the friends and family we may have".
Guilt and regret can overwhelm you years after the loss of your pet. Sandra, a subscriber to our online newsletter, Angel Animals Story of the Week, wrote about what she considered to be one of the most difficult decisions she ever had to make. Her dear animal companion of fifteen years, a dog named Bear, had struggled to combat a hyperthyroid condition for almost two years. By then, Bear had lost a quarter of her hair. The dog was constantly hungry and miserable, losing weight, and wailing with pain most of the time. After doing everything she could to keep Bear alive and depleting her financial resources in the process, Sandra had to struggle with whether to have the dog euthanized.
Even though Sandra believed that Bear would be in a better place after death, she worried and felt guilty about euthanasia. Years later, she continued to wonder whether she had done the right thing. She wrote, "I looked up the word euthanasia and learned that it comes from Greek for easy death. God, I hope so. I did not want Bear to suffer anymore". Sandra closed her letter by asking our readers to let her know what they thought about the practice of euthanasia. We received an avalanche of responses. The following readers' answers may help if you are dealing with guilt or regret over choosing to euthanize your pet.
Diana from Australia wrote, "Congratulations. What courage, compassion, and love you have. It reflects in your words and deeds. If I were an animal in your care, I would be so content with my life. Bear would have loved you all the more for giving her the life and love you did."
A letter from Rita comforted Sandra by explaining how she had talked to her pug, Betty, after the dog could no longer stand up or move. Rita wrote, "I told Betty I had to put her to sleep and that she can come back to me."
Dee expressed what many of our readers believe about euthanasia. She wrote, "I know it was the right thing to do. Sometimes, it's the last, best, most loving gift we can give our animal friends, to free them from their painful, failing bodies and let their spirits soar. I also believe that they will be with us in eternity. They're waiting for us in heaven or at the Rainbow Bridge. Though it may, and does, break our hearts, we can rest in the knowledge that we were unselfish at the end and did what was best for them."
Most of our readers were in agreement that euthanasia was necessary to end an animal's pain and opted for quality of life over longevity. Some even wished that euthanasia would be an option for humans. However, a Buddhist practitioner named Trisha wrote to express a differing opinion. Trisha said, "From the Buddhist standpoint, we may do our companion animals a disservice by creating karma for them by prematurely taking their lives".
On the other hand, sometimes people are too quick to choose euthanasia as a solution to their problems with a pet. We receive calls and letters from people who want us to help them ease their conscience over the decision to euthanize a perfectly healthy pet. Known as convenience euthanasia, this practice is painful for everyone, including the veterinarian who must decide if he or she should do it. Most often, the desire to end a healthy animal's life comes about because of behavioral problems, such as the pet urinating in the wrong place at the wrong time or not being obedient enough. We try to help people find alternatives to euthanasia under these circumstances. With the wide range of assistance available through animal therapists, animal communicators, and veterinary specialists, or the possibility of someone else adopting the pet, euthanasia is hardly the best choice for an animal who happens to be frustrating a human.
In reading through the books and resources on pet loss, we've noticed that in an attempt to ease their readers' guilt and regret, some authors go overboard with their belief that animals and humans don't have the same attitudes toward death, and animals don't fear dying. Animals try to survive when death is being imposed upon them prematurely. Several accounts of cows and pigs escaping slaughter have made international news. A volunteer who worked at an animal shelter that practices euthanasia on animals if they haven't been adopted by a certain time, told us that she often witnessed dogs straining at the leash and fighting against being taken into the "euthanasia room."
Usually, though, when an animal has been suffering, he won't cling to life unless the person to whom he is devoted isn't ready to let him go. Then the animal often prolongs his suffering until he senses that the person can release him. The pet psychic Sonya Fitzpatrick writes in What the Animals Tell Me, "We must let our animal companions go when their time comes. The greatest gift we can give dying pets is to send them on their way with our love and blessing so that they may make the transition from this earth plane with dignity and peace. If our grief at the thought of their death and our fear of what life will be like without them are so unmanageable that we cannot let our pets go, we cause animals that are in horrible pain to hang on and on, just to please us. That is a terribly irresponsible and unfeeling thing to do."
What to Do with Regrets and Guilt
No matter how you look at it, whether you chose to end your animal companion's suffering or prolong his life, you're likely to regret something. And what if later you realize that you didn't do everything possible to keep your pet alive and healthy? Perhaps you have more information now than you did when you decided to opt for euthanasia. Or perhaps you're looking back at a previous stage of your life and wondering, "What was I thinking?"
A sixty-year-old woman named Barbara wrote to us about a moral dilemma she faced years ago. The decision she made had filled her with regret, and she longed to ease her guilt. Barbara said that after her husband of twenty-three years died of brain cancer, Mouse, her Chihuahua, had brought her great comfort in the lonely weeks after her husband passed.
A year later, Barbara met a man with whom she fell in love. She moved into his house. And that's when the trouble began. The man told her that he didn't want to have a dog in his home. Barbara wrote, "In a moment of desperation and because I was trying to please this man, I took Mouse to the animal shelter. I would not have given up Mouse for any other person. When I returned home, he was angry about what I did because he felt guilty. I was heartbroken. The man had such mood swings that I thought [if I retrieved Mouse], he would change his mind, and I'd have to go through this again if he said Mouse had to go. Also, Mouse wasn't happy around the man. So I did not go back to get her from the animal shelter. The dog was a popular breed, and I hoped she would be adopted right away."
Excerpted from Saying Goodbye to Your Angel Animals by Allen Anderson, Linda Anderson. Copyright © 2008 Allen and Linda Anderson. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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