Losing a pet can be tremendously painful. It can bring up a deep sense of loss, loneliness, and reminders of loved ones who have passed on. Pets have become part of our families. Losing one requires careful attention.
It was only after we lost our dog, unexpectedly, that I realised how profoundly disturbing it can be to lose a pet. As part of our move to a new country, some blood had to be taken of Romeo. It was needed to test him on anti-bodies for rabies. A routine procedure: a few milliliters of blood was to be taken to be sent to a lab. However, Romeo had been traumatised by his first owners. They’d regularly beaten him and would not give him any positive attention. This had made a visit to the vet quite problematic.
There, in this unfamiliar and enclosed space at the vet’s clinic, all his fears came barging out. He hid under the chair I was sitting on, and would not come out. The vet advised me to go home. He would give Romeo a sedative, but nobody knew that the dog had a very small heart failure. A heart failure that would not have killed Romeo while chasing monkeys in our garden in Nairobi, but one that could not handle a sedative.
We buried Romeo in our garden, in the presence of our old German Shepard.
Romeo’s death brought up a lot of emotions and a whole set of memories popped back into awareness. It took us a while before these emotions lessened, and before we were ready to embrace new canines into the family.
Going through the Five Stages of Grief
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross has laid the groundwork for nearly all counselling that is currently done to help relatives and friends process the emotions that arise when someone dies. She spoke of the five stages of grief:
Originally, Kübler-Ross applied these stages to people faced with their own terminal disease. Quite quickly after she published her findings she realised that they also applied to those who stay behind and need to process the (upcoming) loss of their loved ones. Nowadays, many counsellors also apply these stages to numerous other types of loss: the loss of a job, the end of a relationship, moving houses, etcetera.
If you or your family is faced with the loss of a cat, a dog, a bird, a guinea pig or any other type of pet: do keep an eye out for how each responds. Some might pretend they are untouched because they might feel unable to communicate what they’re feeling; it could even be that they might be so overwhelmed that they block it out. Some might have difficulty falling asleep, others might be afraid of falling a sleep fearing that something bad might happen to them, or to others.
Do you notice irritability? Do you notice nightmares? Or irrational fears?
If so, it might be worthwhile contacting a counsellor or therapist.
Although it might seem helpful to shift your children’s attention to other topics, or to joyful entertainment it is advisable to remain alert for the grief, anger or sadness that needs some form of attention. With the important places pets have taken up in our modern households, losing one is by many seen and felt as losing a member of the family.
*** Update ***
This was published on the New York Times: a heartfelt piece about losing a pet.