grief

A tribute to Cookie

cookie-tortoiseshell-cat-close-up

When a friend’s cat passes away, my heart hurts for my friend. When I lose one of my feline Reiki clients, my heart hurts for the cat’s guardian, and for the lost connection. When I connect with an animal during a Reiki session, I connect with the essence of that animal, and even though I never get to meet many of my remote Reiki clients in person, I form a strong attachment to them over the time that I work with them.

Cookie was both: a friend’s cat, and a Reiki client. She was also a tortie. Cookie belonged to animal artist Bernadette Kazmarski. Early this morning, at the ripe old age of 19 years, Cookie passed away after a long and steady, but gentle decline. As Bernadette writes in her beautiful tribute My Little Sunflower, “her green eyes looked directly into mine; we held each others’ gaze for a minute or more as she lifted her petite paw and laid it on the back of my hand, comforting me, saying goodbye. Then she shifted her position and her gaze and drifted from consciousness.”Continue Reading

Love, grief and letting your heart off the leash

Circe Abyssynian cat

Guest post by Circe (as told to her human, T. J. Banks)

Phoebe was going to write this guest post. But she knew that I had a story to tell, so she said I could take her turn. She’s a good friend. And it’s a good story, too…one with happy parts…sad parts…and the kind of ending I’ve heard humans call “bittersweet.”

I came from a cattery way up north. The woman there was good to me, but the other Abys weren’t. They shunned me because I was little and sickly. Even my own mother took no notice of me. So I just sat there, wistfully watching the other kittens tumble and wrestle with each other and wondering what it would be like to really feel like I belonged somewhere.

Then I came here. Phoenix, a handsome Ruddy Aby, greeted me right away and started showing me around the house. He told me that I was beautiful – he was a very friendly up-front sort of cat – and that I should forget all about what the Abys back at the cattery had said. I was his girl now, and he’d take care of me. Continue Reading

A pet’s loss once removed is a loss no less

cat-at-window

As a Reiki Practitioner, I rarely work with young, healthy animals. Most of my feline and canine clients suffer from degenerative diseases such as arthritis, kidney disease, or diabetes. Some are terminally ill. Reiki can help bring healing and balance to these animals by reducing stress, providing pain relief, alleviating side effects of conventional treatments, and strengthening the immune system.

Reiki can be especially beneficial for animals suffering from a terminal illness. I even offer joint treatments for pet and guardian. Often, animals will not allow themselves to transition because they intuitively feel that their person is not ready to let them go. Joint Reiki treatments for the pet and his or her person can help both through this difficult time by enhancing the bond and allowing a gentle transition.

Unfortunately, working with older animals and hospice patients also makes it inevitable that eventually, I’m going to lose these clients. The experience of losing an animal client is unique. It’s different from losing my own cats, but it hurts nevertheless.Continue Reading

Euthanasia: The Loneliest Decision

Making a decision about whether or when the time is right for euthanasia is one of the hardest things someone loving a pet will ever go through. Unlike human medicine, veterinary medicine is fortunate to be able to legally offer the option of gently ending suffering when there seems to be no hope for recovery. Making this decision for a beloved pet can be agonizing to the point of being nearly impossible for some pet guardians.

And even though there are some guidelines that can help with the decision process, ultimately, nobody else can make this decision for you. It’s between you, and your pet.

My personal experience with having to make the euthanasia decision

I’ve had to make this decision three times. In April of 2000, Feebee lost his battle with lymphoma. After tolerating chemotherapy well for almost seven months, he declined rapidly, and instead of choosing more aggressive chemotherapy and blood transfusions, which might have given him some more time, I choose to let him go. And Feebee, in one final act of unconditional love, took the decision out of my hands: he died in my arms while my vet was on her way to my house.

Those of you who read Buckley’s Story already know how difficult my decision was to let Buckley go in November of 2008, when her severe heart disease was compounded by multiple other problems. I probably held on a little too long with her, but I’m now at peace with my decision. She, too, died in my arms, with my vet’s gentle assistance.

My most difficult decision was the one I had to make last May, when Amber came down with a sudden, severe illness. She was in intensive care for four days, and her prognosis was so poor that I decided against pursuing more aggressive treatment and took her home. I spent the afternoon with her before my vet came to the house. Amber laid on my chest, and looked right into my eyes as she took her final, peaceful breath with my vet’s help. I’m still not entirely at peace with this decision, a part of me will always wonder whether I gave up too soon.

How do you decide when it’s time?

There are some markers that can be used as guides. Pain is one of them. No pet parent wants to see a beloved pet suffer. Animals, especially cats, are masters at masking pain, so this can be difficult to detect. Another marker is appetite. For most pet guardians, the first indication that something is wrong is usually when a pet stops eating. A third important marker is dignity. Is the pet still able to relieve herself on her own, or does she need assistance with urination and defecation?

Dr. Alice Villalobos, founder of Pawspice, a hospice program for pets, has developed a Feline Quality of Life Scale that can help care givers determine quality of life based on criteria such as pain, appetite, hygiene, and whether the number of good days outweighs the bad.

Each relationship is unique

But decision points aren’t the only part of the equation. Each pet and each relationship between human and animal is unique.  There is no one right answer. And that’s why making this decision can make you feel like you’re all alone with this awful responsibility.

The emotional aspects of making the euthanasia decision can be incredibly complex. In addition to the love for the pet, and the fear of losing him and not being able to imagine life without him, a care giver’s prior experience with illness and death, be it of a pet or a human, will influence the decision. Religious beliefs may also impact the decision.

Denial can play a significant role in the process. When faced with difficult situations, denial is a natural defense mechanism that initially saves the person from anxiety or pain. However, getting stuck in denial can become paralyzing. When it comes to dealing with a terminally ill pet, love and denial can be intricately linked, and it can sometimes be difficult to separate one from the other.

A lonely decision

Making the euthanasia decision is a lonely decision. While others may provide support and advice, ultimately, nobody other than the pet’s caregiver can make this decision. And that’s where things get challenging. I’m currently dealing with a situation where a client’s cat has been ill for a long time, but the client is not ready to make a decision. She’s gone far past the stage where I would have made the decision, if the cat was mine. But at the same time, I can’t fault this client for not being able to make a decision: her cat, while medically in very bad shape, still responds to her, still purrs for her, and still eats well.

Sometimes, it can be hard for a caregiver to really see how far an animal may have declined. Watching a pet deteriorate a little more every day is hard, but seeing the decline happen a little bit at a time can feed the natural amount of denial most people have that the pet just isn’t that sick. Sometimes, it takes a visit from someone who hasn’t seen the pet in a while to make the pet’s guardian realize just how much the pet has declined.

One aspect to making the decision that is not often talked about was recently addressed in a beautiful post by Robin Olson of Covered in Cat Hair. Robin’s 14-year-old cat Bob has lymphoma, and has recently stopped responding to chemotherapy. He’s also dealing with multiple other problems. Robin writes:  “Try to watch out for the urge to just get it over with because YOU are suffering watching this natural process occur. This is very very difficult, but we owe it to our animals to give them every option and every day we can.” I couldn’t agree more. We don’t want our animals to suffer, that’s a given. But the euthanasia decision should never be based on our own discomfort with the dying process. I encourage you to read Robin’s entire post about Bob’s battle with cancer, and her struggle to do the right thing for him.

Will you “just know?”

It is often said that we will “just know” when the time is right. And I believe that when we do connect with the essence of our animals and manage to set aside worry and fear for even just a few moments at a time, we will know.  It takes courage to set aside our fears, and to tune in to the animal and really “hear”  them.

Ultimately, the only way any of us can make this decision is by listening to our animal friends with our hearts, not with our heads. It becomes a decision of love, not something to be reasoned out on an analytical and intellectual level.

The sad reality of making the euthanasia decision is that there is probably no way to ever be completely at peace with it. And that, too, makes it the loneliest decision.

Have you had to make the euthanasia decision for a beloved cat? What helped you during the decision process?

 

Do Cats Grieve for Other Cats?

cat looking out window

Guest post by Arnold Plotnick, MS, DVM, ACVIM, ABVP

It happened 26 years ago, but my memory of the incident remains vivid.

With my sights set on becoming a veterinarian, I was working as a volunteer at a local veterinarian’s office in Gainesville, Florida, to obtain that all-important “real life” experience. It was a weekday, and the first appointment of the afternoon was a woman who was bringing in her cat, Sarah, for a physical examination. “She has no interest in food, no interest in people; she just sits next to the couch and doesn’t move”, said the owner, a woman in her 50s. This subdued behavior had been going on for four days. The doctor asked the woman about the days preceding Sarah’s lethargy and loss of appetite, and whether anything in the cat’s environment had changed.

In a soft, forlorn voice, the woman proceeded to tell the veterinarian that Sarah had a littermate – a sister – and that they were inseparable. Both cats had access to a small backyard through a kitty door, and would often hang out in the yard together. Four days prior, the sister was in the yard by herself when a neighborhood dog managed to get into the yard, chase down the sister, and attack and kill her. Sarah was inside the house at the time, looking into the yard from the window. She witnessed the entire incident. “From that point on”, said the woman, “she’s been like this”, pointing to Sarah. I looked over at the cat, huddled on the exam table, disinterested in her surroundings, inconsolable.

The veterinarian examined her from head to tail. A “use caution” sticker on Sarah’s record indicated that she was known to be feisty during veterinary exams. But not that day. She put up no fuss as the doctor poked and prodded. The doctor pronounced the cat healthy, and told the client that in his professional opinion, Sarah was clearly grieving for her sister. “I wouldn’t have thought cats were capable of mourning”, said her owner, “but I see it now with my own eyes. I’ve never seen anything so sad in my life.”

Do cats grieve?

Grief occurs as a result of the abrupt or unexpected severing of attachment. Although cats are thought of as being aloof and solitary, they are, in fact, social animals, and are as capable as dogs of forming deep attachments to people and other animals. It stands to reason that a severing of that attachment would lead to grieving. As a veterinarian and advice columnist, I am often asked whether I think cats grieve or mourn the loss of a feline companion. I certainly feel that they do, but cats cannot speak, and we can only guess at what their true emotions might be at any given time.

“Culturally, we try to deny human-like behaviors in animals,” says Alan Beck, Professor and Director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University’s School of Veterinary Medicine. “People used to believe that animals didn’t feel pain”, says Beck. “We know, of course, that this isn’t true. Then, they used to question whether animals could think. Clearly, they can.” Beck adds, “I suppose that denying animal’s human-like behaviors allows us to be more comfortable eating them and using them.” But attitudes toward animals have changed over the years. While he believes that cats probably don’t perceive death the same way as people do, for pet cats experiencing a drastic change in their environment, it seems reasonable to think that they do grieve. “We can’t be certain if they mourn in the human sense of the word, but we should give them the benefit of the doubt”, says Beck. “If something would cause stress in a human, we should assume it would cause stress in animals.”

The difference between human and feline grieving

There are clear differences between human and feline grieving. Humans can show grief for distant relatives or for public figures. Cats lack the abstraction that allows people to grieve for those they’ve never met; cats only grieve for familiar and close companions. Cats do not demonstrate the same ritualized ways of dealing with their grief as humans do, but they do exhibit their own signs of mourning. In 1996, The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals conducted the Companion Animal Mourning Project. The study found that 46% of cats ate less than usual after the death of a companion cat. Around 70% showed a change in vocalization pattern (they meowed significantly more often, or significantly less, than normal). More than half of the cats became more affectionate and “clingy” with their owners, and many of the cats slept more, and changed the location of where they usually slept. Overall, 65% of cats exhibited four or more behavior changes after losing a pet companion.

Cat mourns loss of human and feline companion

Alison Fraser needs no convincing. When not singing or dancing on Broadway, the Tony-nominated performer could usually be found doting on her cats, Iggy and Pete. This past August, however, tragedy struck when Iggy, who had been coping well with his heart disease (hypertrophic cardiomyopathy), suffered an embolus and became acutely paralyzed in his rear legs. He died soon afterward. “Pete mourned for days”, says Alison.

This wasn’t the first time Pete had shown mourning behavior. When Alison’s husband Rusty became ill, Pete got very stressed and began to overgroom, barbering his tail nearly to the point of baldness. When Rusty passed away, Pete mourned for weeks. Not long afterward, Pete’s other feline companion, Valentine, died of chronic renal failure, and once again, Pete grieved for weeks, moping, hiding, and overgrooming. Alison adopted Iggy as a companion for the sullen Pete. Fortunately, Iggy and Pete clicked right away, with Pete acting as Iggy’s protector. “Iggy died so suddenly”, says Alison, “that Pete never got to say a proper goodbye.” Until Alison came home with Iggy’s ashes. “When I brought the ashes home, I placed the urn in the middle of the living room floor. Pete went over to the urn, laid his chin on it, and kept it there for an hour. I believe this was Pete’s way of saying his final goodbye.”

How cats perceive death

The question often arises as to whether it is a good idea to allow surviving cats to see the body of the deceased cat. “Whether this is helpful or not is the subject of debate”, says Dr. Nicholas Dodman, board certified veterinary behaviorist at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, and author of The Cat Who Cried for Help, “and there is little evidence to support either view.”

Some researchers believe that a cat perceives death the way a young child might perceive it, i.e. they lack the concept of death being a permanent state. If that’s true, then showing them the body “would be like letting a 2 year-old see a deceased family member at a funeral. The consequences just don’t register”, says Dr. Dodman. On the other hand, if dogs and cats do comprehend death more than we give them credit for, viewing a deceased companion may help to explain why that companion cat won’t be around in the future. Anecdotally, people have reported that some cats stop searching for an absent companion after being shown the body of a deceased companion.

This may indicate that cats have at least some comprehension that something dead cannot come alive again. This may be linked to the fact that they are predators. “The weight of opinion today is that a ‘viewing’ is not likely to help a pet understand the death of a companion”, says Dodman. “But”, he adds, “I think we should give our pets the benefit of the doubt and allow them to, if we feel it might help. After all, if the human experience is anything to go by, it may help some come to terms with what has transpired.”

How to tell whether your cat is grieving

Life abruptly becomes very different for the surviving cat, and it will require extra attention, compassion, and reassurance during this period. If the surviving cat had access to the outdoors, this should be restricted, as the cat may stray off into unfamiliar territory and get into dangerous situations as it searches for the lost companion. Time heals all wounds, and if the cat is showing other signs of depression (poor appetite, change in sleeping pattern, excessive vocalization, overgrooming, pacing, searching), these often dissipate after a few weeks, although it can take as long as six months. “Enriching the environment, by offering new toys, treats, etc. is helpful and recommended”, says Dr. Dodman, as this may help reduce a clingy cat’s sudden over-attachment, and may draw the cat out of its shell.

In a multi-cat household, the surviving cats will eventually work out the new social order. Whether getting a replacement cat right away is a good idea is debatable. Pete found Iggy to be a welcome distraction, but this is usually the exception rather than the rule. A cat in the throes of grief may not be able to handle the additional stress of a new feline intruder. “In some instances, severely affected cats may require anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medication”, warns Dodman. As with humans, cats need time to process the loss.

Cats are resilient animals. If given time to grieve, they will return to some of their old rituals, develop new rituals, and once again regain the contentment that they previously enjoyed.

Dr. Arnold Plotnick is a retired feline veterinarian and the former owner of Manhattan Cat Specialists, a cats-only veterinary clinic on the Upper Westside of Manhattan.

Coping with Unexpected Loss: A Personal Journey

Amber The Conscious Cat

When I had to let Amber go after a brief, sudden illness last May, I wasn’t prepared for the depth of my grief. It hadn’t even been a year and a half after I lost Buckley. Here I was, faced with grieving yet again.

It’s not like I hadn’t experienced loss in my life before. Most of us who’ve reached the age I’m at have had to deal with loss. I lost my mother in 1994 after a brief illness. I lost my soul mate cat Feebee in 2000 after a valiant seven-month battle with lymphoma. I lost my office cat Virginia in 2002 after a brief decline following a fourteen-year-long life with FIV. I lost my father in 2004 to heart disease and cancer. And as those of you who’ve read Buckley’s Story know, I lost Buckley after she was diagnosed with restrictive cardiomyopathy and given a very poor prognosis that she outlived by a considerable amount of time.

I had lots of experience with grief, and I survived all of these losses more or less gracefully. I learned that there is only one way to deal with grief, and that’s to go through it. There is no way around it. You can’t run from it.  I learned about the stages of grief. I learned that you don’t go through them step by step, but rather, that you sometimes cycle through them over and over, until, at some point, mercifully, you may find that you’ve reached the final stage, acceptance. But even reaching acceptance doesn’t mean that you ever really get “over” a loss.

So you’d think that with all this personal experience in grieving, I would have been better prepared to handle losing Amber. The force of my grief over losing her caught me completely off guard. And I realized, in the middle of the shock, the tears, and the pain, that I had never lost a loved one as unexpectedly and suddenly as I lost her. Twelve short days, from the time that she was mildly ill to the time that I had to let her go. I never expected her to not get better when I agreed to hospitalize her. I always expected her to come home.  Come home she did, but not in the way I would have wanted her to. Because of her poor prognosis, after four days of intensive care, I made the agonizing decision to stop treatment, bring her home, and spend the afternoon with her before my vet came to the house that evening to help her with a peaceful transition.

As with all my losses, there were commonalities. Despite the incredible outpouring of love and support from not only my ”real life” friends, but also my online friends,  there were times when I felt alone in my grief, disconnected from the world around me and normal everyday activities. I was physically exhausted most of the time – grief takes a toll not just emotionally,  but physically. I tried to take care of myself as best as I could, by trying to eat regular meals, getting some exercise, and staying connected with friends.  But it was hard.  Going out into the world was challenging – how could life be going on when my world had changed irrevocably?

In The Healing Art of Pet Parenthood, author Nadine M. Rosin, after losing her nineteen-year-old dog Buttons, writes:  “…being out in public felt totally bizarre, as if the world had come to an end because of some horrible disaster, life as we’d known it on the planet was over, but I seemed to be the only person who knew about it.” I’ve rarely heard this particular emotion of feeling out of synch with the rest of the world expressed better. I limited social engagements to activities with friends who understood my grief, and I’m fortunate that most of the people in my life are animal people, and they do understand. I simply didn’t have it in me to make polite chit-chat with those who didn’t.

I knew I’d make it through, just like I made it through all my other losses. But one year later, I also realize that this loss left me forever changed in ways the others didn’t. And perhaps it had to do with the suddenness of the loss.

With all my other losses, I’ve always had time to prepare for loss. While anticipatory grieving is difficult, I believe that it does help in the end – you have time to get used to the idea of eventually having to go on without your loved one. But Amber was a healthy, happy cat who had rarely been sick in her life. There was nothing that could have prepared me for this.   It was much harder, much more painful, and much more complicated than my other losses. With the others, I rarely second-guessed myself. I didn’t rail at the universe for having my loved one taken from me so quickly. I didn’t blame myself for decisions I made during Amber’s last two weeks.  I just grieved.

A year later, I can finally say that I’ve found peace. And I learned this, yet again: grief is a process. It requires being gentle with yourself as you go through it. It requires allowing those who understand to support you, and staying away from those who don’t. It requires courage to face the pain, rather than run from it.

Grief can be a transformational experience.  It rips your heart wide open, and you’ll never be the same. It’s up to each individual whether they’ll choose to let grief destroy them, or whether they’ll do the challenging and difficult work that will ultimately allow it to be transformed into personal growth and expansion.

To honor Amber, her love, and all she has brought into my life, I didn’t have any other choice except to let something good come from this devastating loss.

Book Review: Cleo – The Cat Who Mended a Family by Helen Brown

The cats’ day has finally come when it comes to pet memoirs.  A genre that used to be almost exclusively ruled by dogs has finally seen a number of wonderful cat memoirs.  It began with Dewey, the library cat.  Then came Homer’s Odyssey.  And there are many more, you can find several of them reviewed here.  And of course, there’s my own Buckley’s Story.  And now, there’s Cleo.  Helen Brown’s international bestseller, first published in New Zealand, Australia and the UK, was released in the US on August 31 by Citadel Press. 

From the publisher:

“We’re just going to look.”  Helen Brown had no intention of adopting a pet when she brought her sons, Sam and Rob, to visit a friend’s new kittens.  But the runt of the litter was irreristible, with her overlarge ears and dainty chin.  When Cleo was delivered three weeks later, Brown’s family had just been hit by a tragedy:  the loss of her young son, Sam.  Helen was sure she couldn’t keep Cleo at a time like this – until she saw something that she thought had vanished from the earth forever:  her son Rob’s smile.  The reckless, rambunctious kitten stayed.

What follows is a sweeping memoir of heartbreak, changes, new beginnings, and ultimately, happiness.   Cleo is the connecting thread through it all, holding Brown’s family together through devastating grief, illness, moves across continents, and other challenges life throws at them.  It will come as no surprise to cat lovers that one small cat is capable of what Cleo managed to do for the Brown family – she not only healed their hearts, but helped them find a way to integrate Sam’s loss into their lives in ways that honored his memory, but also allowed them to move on with their lives.  Brown’s writing is vividly descriptive and sometimes almost lyrical and poetic.  She transports us to the beauty of New Zealand as easily as she makes us fall in love with the small kitten with the big ears.  She makes us feel the unbearable pain of loss, and lets us breathe easier right along with her as her family begins to mend.

In addition to being a wonderful cat book, a beautiful memoir, and a spell-binding read that was hard to put down, it’s also a book about loss and grief, and how to cope with the almost unimaginable – the death of a child.  By sharing her own experience with great openness and sensitivity, Brown gives hope to others who are trying to cope  with life after loss.

This book goes on my list of best cat books ever – for me, it’s right up there with such classics as A Snowflake in My Hands and The Cat Who Came for Christmas.  Don’t miss this one.

Helen Brown was born and brought up in New Zealand, where she first worked as a journalist, TV presenter, and scriptwriter.  Now living in Melbourne, Australia, with her family, Helen continues to write columns for the New Zealand media.  You can find more information about Helen on her website.

Look for an interview with Helen Brown on The Conscious Cat on Wednesday.

I received an ARC copy of this book from the publisher.

Happy Father’s Day 2010

Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there! 

My dad passed away more than six years ago.   This Father’s Day, I miss him a little more than I normally do.  My grief over Amber is still fresh and raw.  One aspect of the grieving process that often catches people by surprise is that frequently, it causes us to relive all the other losses we’ve previously suffered.  Holidays like Father’s Day always intensify the emotions.

Last year, I wrote a piece titled Father’s Day Reflections, and I thought I’d share it again here today:

My relationship with my dad was complicated at times, but I always knew that he loved me, and I have many wonderful memories of him.  His life was shaped to a great extent by his experiences during World War II in Germany, and as a result of suffering so much loss at such a young age, he held those he loved close to him – at times, too close for a daughter who wanted to spread her wings and fly from the nest!   He instilled in me my love of nature – some of my earliest and fondest memories are of long walks in the woods and parks near our home.  He taught me the names of all the flowers, trees, butterflies and animals we’d encounter on those walks.

He worked hard at a job he didn’t enjoy all that much to provide for my mother and me.  We were by no means rich, but he always made me feel like we were.  He fell in love with the Alps after first catching a glimpse of them as an American POW in Bavaria after the end of World War II.  The story he told was of being held captive in a basement with a very small window, through which he could see these beautiful mountains, and even in the darkest days of his captivity, looking at the mountains would give him hope.  He vowed that he would come back to these mountains someday, and he did.  Some of his happiest times were vacations spent hiking those magestic mountains.  He loved to travel, and after taking early retirement, for the next nine years, he and my mother traveled extensively.  He especially enjoyed his travels in the Western part of the United States – every Western movie he’d ever seen came to life for him there.  He would talk about those trips for years to come.

He had a difficult time dealing with my mother’s death in 1994, and his life contracted again.  He didn’t enjoy traveling by himself, and other than his annual visit to the United States, he stayed close to home.  When he became ill with prostate cancer, I wasn’t sure he would want to fight – but he surprised me.  He wanted to live, and he survived.  Then he decided that it was time to make a lifelong dream come true.  He sold his home of forty years almost overnight, and bought a condo in the Black Forest, where he spent the last two years of his life in an environment that he loved.   Having been a life-long worrier, he learned to live in the moment and “appreciate each flower and each butterfly,” as he once told me.  He passed away after a short illness, and knowing how happy he was the last two years of his life was a great comfort to me.

If you still have your father, tell him that you love him today.  My dad had a long, sometimes difficult, but ultimately good life, and I miss his physical presence in my life.  However, his spirit is never far from me.

Book Review: Good Grief – Finding Peace After Pet Loss by Sid Korpi

good  grief

There are quite a few books about pet loss on the market, and I’ve read a good number of them over the years, but none has resonated with me as much as Good Grief – Finding Peace After Pet Loss by Sid Korpi.  Korpi is a writer, editor, journalist and ordained minister, and most importantly, a lifelong animal lover who understands the human-animal bond.   While most pet loss books focus on the stages of grief and the psychology of the mourning process, Korpi goes beyond those aspects in her book.  She shows the reader how to :

  • Emotionally prepare for a pet’s euthanasia and understand when it’s time
  • View death not as an ending, but (as animals see it) a natural transition
  • Cope with being around insensitive people
  • Memorialize and celebrate the pet’s life
  • Move on after loss and love again.

The book addresses all aspects of the grieving process, from understanding what to expect to how to move on after loss.  I particularly enjoyed the two sections Korpi presents about afterlife connections.  She shares stories of humans and animals and how they’ve connected with their surviving loved ones after their deaths.  Some of the stories are taken from her own life, others come from a wide variety of animal lovers from around the world, and all are comforting and will reassure the reader that the love betwen humans and their beloved animal companions truly is eternal.  Korpi also offers suggestions on how we can feel and encourage this connection with our departed loved ones.

The section on memorializing methods offers many wonderful suggestions on how to remember a pet in both public and private ways, stressing that this is an important part of the grieving process.   Korpi addresses the role of spirituality, philosophy and religion in healing from pet loss by sharing the different viewpoints, including some from the perspectives of various religious leaders.   The book contains an impressive bibliography  and grief support resource section.

What makes this book different from other pet loss books is Korpi’s compassion, empathy and sometimes, even a gentle sense of humor.  Rather than feeling like a book written by a counselor, reading Good Grief feels like a conversation with a supportive, caring friend.  It certainly provided comfort for my own grieving heart.

For more information about Sid Korpi and her book, please visit her website.

What Not to Say to Someone Who Is Grieving The Loss of a Pet

cat_sympathy_card

As a society, we are not equipped to handle grief and loss, and many people don’t know what to say to someone who is grieving.  This can be compounded when the loss is that of a pet.  Even people who are genuinely sorry and want to express their sympathy often don’t know what to say to comfort the grieving person.

It is difficult to know what to say, and as a result, people often, without meaning to, say the wrong things that, rather than providing comfort, only serve to upset the grieving person even more.   Sometimes, the best thing to say is to simply acknowledge the loss – because the only thing worse than saying the wrong thing is to not say anything at all.   As I’m dealing with my own grief about Amber, I’m once again reminded of how much some of the things people say hurt, even though they’re offered with the best intentions.

I know how you feel.

Everybody experiences loss differently.  While we may have lost pets ourselves, we can’t know how the grieving person feels, because each pet and each relationship is unique.

Saying something like “I, too, have lost a pet, and I remember how awful it feels – my heart goes out to you”  instead acknowledges the griever’s feelings without being presumptuous.

It will get better or time heals all wounds.

Grieving people know this on an intellectual level, but they sure don’t feel that way, especially not in the early stages of grief.  Trite phrases like these only serve to minimize the loss and the very real pain the grieving person is feeling now.

Acknowledge the grieving person’s sadness and pain without diminishing their emotions by suggesting that they’re only temporary.

She’s in a better place now.  It was probably for the best.   It was God’s will.

Any variation of this will not be helpful to someone who’s grieving.  Even if their belief system supports this, they’re not going to find comfort in these words, and they may, in fact, serve to emphasize their pain.

Even if the grieving person believes that our animal friends never really die and that their spirits live on, any of the above phrases, directed at them in the middle of profound sadness, invalidate the very real pain of missing the lost pet’s physical presence.

Let me know if there’s anything I can do.

This is a classic, and natural, response to grief – we feel helpless, and we want to help the grieving person.  However, people who are grieving don’t think straight, and usually don’t know what they need help with, and reaching out or asking for help often requires more of an effort than they can handle.

Offer to do something concrete instead, such as bringing a prepared meal to the grieving person, or running errands for them.  If you know the person very well and you think it would be acceptable, stop by to check on them.  Otherwise, call them, but accept that they may not want to answer the phone.  Leave a supportive message, and check back again a few days later.

It was only a pet.

I find it hard to believe that some people are still saying this – it is callous and uncaring, even coming from someone who’s not an animal person.  I’m fortunate that the majority of people in my life are animal people, so I’ve not heard this one personally, but I’m being told that it still happens more than you would think.

When are you going to get another one? 

Not quite as shocking as the one above, but equally inappropriate.  Grieving pet parents know that getting a new pet can never replace the lost one, but getting a new pet after a loss is a very individual decision – everyone’s schedule is going to be different.  (Read Life after Loss – Getting a New Pet for more on this topic.)

Don’t cry.

Most people are uncomfortable in the presence of others who are crying.  It is painful to see someone you care about cry, but by telling them not to cry, you are prolonging the grieving process for them.

Tears heal and are part of the natural grieving process.  One of the best things you can do for someone who is grieving is to let them cry in your presence.  Offer comfort, but don’t make them feel that it’s not okay to cry.

There is no “cure” or “solution” for grief – it’s an individual journey.  Navigating through the grieving process is difficult not just for the person who is mourning a loss, but also for those around the person.  The best thing any of us can do for someone who is grieving the loss of a pet is to set aside our own discomfort with death and loss and gently support them in their grief.