Coping with an absent friend
Having a pet creates a sense of attachment between a human and an animal, a bond which strengthens over time. As human beings we are social animals and genetically programmed to form relationships, especially when there is an element of dependency involved. Right from the beginning of life as Children we learn a great deal from owning a pet, we learn how to form relationships and co-operate, skills which we then go on to use in making human relationships as we grow older. Children use their pets as a chance to practice imaginary role play or to confide their problems and secrets. For elderly people pets can provide a vital companion in place of an otherwise lonely life. It gives a reason to go out every day for walks or to buy pet supplies. This can keep a connection with the outside world and give an otherwise lonely elderly person the opportunity to keep in touch with other people. Pets can also provide the sick or disabled person with a helping hand physically or emotionally with everyday tasks.
Losing a pet can be devastating for a person. Grief comes in a wave of emotions which can be very difficult to deal with. The key to coping with the loss of a pet is to recognize these stages of grief and to accept each one as it washes over you:
It is normal to feel shocked about hearing of the loss of a pet. The sense of disbelief can last for hours or even days especially if it was an unexpected death. A sense of numbness may also be present which is the brains natural way to protect itself from the painful truth.
- Pain, anger and guilt and blame
Depression is quite usual during this stage of grief. Anxiety including fear of leaving the house or seeing the pet around the home is very common and can be frightening but is perfectly normal. Anger can be directed at those responsible for the death even if they are actually blameless for example the vet may be blamed for not doing enough or perhaps god is to blame for taking away the beloved pet. Feelings of guilt may be present despite its lack of justification.
- Acceptance that your pet will not return
The stark realization of the reality that your pet is gone forever. During this stage it is common to dispose of bedding and accessories belonging to the pet. Some people find that during this stage they can cope with displaying some lovely reminders of their pet such as photographs.
- Recovery and replacement
During this time it is most common to recall fond memories of the time you spent with your pet. It is also the time that most people feel that they can bring a new pet into their lives. Many people feel they can never face the grief they felt for the loss of their pet again which is fine, however it is worth remembering that you would not be ‘replacing’ the pet themselves but providing an alternative being for you to love and care for.
Helping a child through the loss of a pet
- Expect sudden changes in behavior such as crying, anger, loss of toilet training in young children, complaints of illness such as tummy or headaches. The development of separation anxiety can also occur.
- Be honest! Children under 6 years old have little conception of what death is, they require emotional support rather than detailed explanations. In older children it is important to provide more detail about what has happened and why. Consider allowing the children to see the pet’s body as this will give them a chance to come to terms with what has happened.
- Have a funeral. Holding a little ceremony for the farewell of a pet can help the child to have closure.
- Do not use the phrase ‘Put to sleep’ as this can become confused in the child’s mind. They may expect their pet to awaken from their sleep or worse still may develop anxiety about not waking up them self from a sleep.
- Provide a substitute for the child to transfer their affections to (a new cuddly toy is ideal).
Whatever age you are losing a pet can be just as difficult to deal with as losing a human family member. Remember that you family and friends will support you through your grief so talk to them about how you are feeling and work through your stages of grief with someone close to you. Most of all give yourself time.
When the body that lived at your single will,
With its whimper of welcome, is stilled (how still!)
When the spirit that answered your every mood
Is gone – wherever it goes- for good,
You will discover how much you care,
And you will give your heart to a dog to tear.
(Rudyard Kipling, The power of the dog)