Grieving the Loss of Your Pet. Easing the Pain

(Extract from full article)
By Susan de Castella

When I was growing up, our family dog, Princess, was my ‘bestest’ friend. She just loved me no matter what mood I was in. For instance, if I was sad she would come up to me and cuddle into me looking quite forlorn. I’ll always treasure the many hours we spent playing together in our backyard. It was like she was the only one who understood and accepted me for who I was. Her love for me was unconditional.

When she died, I felt utterly devastated and so I can truly understand how many pet owners feel really distraught when they have a sick pet or even worse, when they have a pet die. Often these owners do not have access to a nurturing and supportive space to fully express their grief.

My name is Susan de Castella and I have worked in the animal industry for 20 years. I was a Zoo Keeper at Healesville Sanctuary and at the Melbourne Zoo, as well as, a Veterinary Nurse at Healesville Sanctuary. I have also been an Animal Technician at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research and Department of Zoology Melbourne University.

During my time as an animal carer, I became aware of the lack of support for most pet owners when they are grieving the loss of their pet or coping with feelings associated with having sick or injured pets, making decisions about their future, and coming to a final decision concerning their pet’s future.

In my youth I lived in a constant state of anxiety. At 13 years of age I was put on valium and at a later stage, serapax. One day when I was 19 years of age, I thought, ‘There has to be a better way of living’ so I began my own journey to find inner peace and happiness. I started attending relaxation and yoga classes which eventually led me to heart opening workshops. These have all been invaluable to me on my healing journey.
I really want to share what I have learnt: that loving oneself is the greatest gift I can give with all who I come into relationship with and that’s including pets!.

Now I work as a Thrive Heart Centred Coach assisting people to release blocks, heal the past and to feel happy and contented. As a Thrive Heart Centred Coach, I teach a simple but powerful breathing technique, which helps people to find peace and happiness and live life fully.

When I was grieving, having someone listen to me and validated my feelings, helped me through an extremely difficult time.

This is a very rewarding area I work in, being there for people who need emotional support and assistance to help them through their time of grief. The loss of a pet can be as crippling as the loss of any loved one and the grief process is just as real and deep. It helps owners to know I’ve been involved in both the animal care and emotional release work for many years, so I speak from love and experience. Through this I have gained an understanding of our different emotional states and needs. Having an understanding person helps those who grieve to feel less alone and I support them to know that whatever they are feeling is valid. This helps them through the experience with the least amount of distress.

As one client said, “I didn’t feel anyone understood what I was going through and I felt silly and embarrassed at being so upset over an animal”.

Emotions are our life force and our passion. An emotion is an energy which has a good purpose in our lives because it move us in a certain direction: to take a certain action in response to the situation that we are in. Sadness is one of our emotions.

Our culture has lost the capacity to grieve sadness. When we get hurt or lose something, instead of allowing ourselves to cry and grieve and release this emotion, we tend to shut down instead. As a result we lose connection to life and we lose our sense of passion and aliveness. Grieving is part of the ‘letting go’ process and a way we humans can come to terms with the loss of something very dear to us. Having a good cry helps us to move forward in life more peacefully and joyfully.

Sadness is a natural emotion that rises when we lose someone or something very precious to us. If we have a sick or dying pet, it is natural to feel sad. It is important to allow the grieving process to happen so we can accept the loss and stay fully open to life. I have observed how, as a child, I had the capacity to grieve and express my sadness openly and keep on moving forward. Once I started school and later on as an adult I tended to shut down. When I got hurt I would contract and get stuck in my life.

Sometimes when we are upset about losing our pet we shut down and withdraw. People may want to fix you by saying , ‘Oh cheer up, you can always get another pet’, ‘It’s okay, he’ll be alright, he is in heaven now’, or ‘Don’t be sad your pet wouldn’t want you to be upset’. When they do this we are getting the message that it isn’t okay for you to grieve. Often people try to protect you from pain because it resonates with their unresolved pain from past experiences that have not been fully healed. They don’t want to see it in you as it is too close to home for them.
There is a saying, ‘The more you resist the more it will persist’. Emotions are valid and need to be fully felt and expressed to allow healing to occur in us.

I have found when I have allowed myself to fully grieve over a pet due to death or illness it has helped me to release the sadness and allowed me to move forward in my life. We say: ‘The healing is in the feeling’.
So I have learnt in recent times how grieving sadness has a very important function. Recent research suggests that when we cry we release hormones from the brain that are essential for good health. The old idea of being strong and just bracing ourselves to get through a sad experience is being seriously questioned by science. We need to realise that sadness is not a bad thing, it is a very good thing, as grieving allows us to open our hearts to connect with our self at a deeper level.

When grieving, it can be quite natural for other emotions to come to the surface, such as anger. For example, saying to yourself, ‘Damn it, why did my pet get sick?’ or ‘Why did my best friend die and leave me?’ or ‘It’s not fair’.
We may experience guilt about our pet getting sick or injured, or about having to put our pet down, even though it is the best decision for the animal. We may think ‘I could have done more’ or ‘I should have taken my pet to the Vet’ earlier’.

Fear may also arise, for example, ‘How I am going to cope with my best friend gone?’ or ‘Is this sadness ever going to end?’ ‘I’ll never get over it’, ‘If I go into this sadness, I am going to die?’ ‘I’ll never find as good a friend again’.

We may also blame or criticise other people or the situation as avoidance of the feeling of grief that may be wanting to surface.

The following idea is a step by step guide through the stages of grief…