When Animal Friends Die

They say cats have nine lives. I wish that were true, but the facts contradict such myths. Everything dies, including the felines, dogs and other creatures we choose to care for and have in our lives. Most animals tend to have a shorter life-span than humans, thereby increasing the chances that our beloved friend will stop breathing long before we leave our mortal bodies behind.

To add insult to injury is the often callous or dismissive attitude and comments of others when we’ve lost a non-human friend. People don’t always understand the emotional impact losing a pet can have. They disregard our pain when we try to talk about the cat or dog we’ve had for 15 years getting sick and needing constant attention. They scoff at our tears, when our affectionate tabby is lost or killed by a car. They belittle our sense of shock and disbelief when the dog we loved and cared for tenderly for the last eight years suddenly dies.

Yet, for some, pets, animals, and companions (whichever you prefer) are some of the closest and enduring connections we experience in life. Being responsible for any of the varied creatures placed in our care takes time, attention and devotion. And, just like people, such continued time and attention creates attachment, bonding and lasting imprints.

The love and commitment we give and receive from our animal friends, in some respects, are quite different than that of other relationships. Sometimes, they are the only living beings that love us unconditionally and don’t argue, judge or hurt us in any way. They also provide forms of communication beyond words. There desire to be touched, patted, combed, and talked to provide warmth, softness, connection, meaning and continual reminders of enjoying the present moment.

A lady I recently met was shocked when told by her veterinarian that their beloved kitten had cancer and should be euthanized. She refused and is currently seeking a vet that will give Hospice-type services for her cat and provide whatever is needed to make sure her family friend dies comfortably at home enjoying as many precious moments that remain. Like human beings, there should be an alternative for animals beyond that of further treatments or mercy killing.

Losing a pet also reawakens other losses we’ve experienced, whether recent or long ago. When a cat of ours, named Sushi, was killed by a dog a couple years ago, I unexpectedly found myself remembering my childhood collie, named Pinky and the grandmother I used to visit when Pinky was still alive.

The loss of your animal friend should be treated the same as that of a human. Talk about the loss. Share your pictures, memories, tears and grief. Walk, run, swim, workout, hike, bicycle, dance, play or listen to music by yourself or with a friend.

Breathing exercises, visualizations, relaxation, stretching, meditation, affirmations and yoga have all been shown to relieve stress, anxiety and positive endorphins to help the body heal.

Relax in a hot tub, hot bath, shower, sauna or sweat lodge and let the emotions seep from your pores and evaporate with the steam.

Put together a collage, altar, memory book, picture frame, treasure box, video or CD of your cat, dog, bird, horse or rabbit.

Have a service or gathering. Memorials and/or funerals; provide validation of your relationship with that being; acknowledgment that their life was of value; and societal affirmation that all living creatures are to be honored and respected.

If you’ve lost an animal friend, at any time in your life and would like some additional support (outside your circle of family and friends) contact the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty Against Animals), an empathetic therapist or your local grief-counseling center.

Gabriel Constans 2011

Gabriel Constans

More Articles Written by Gabriel

Gabriel Constans, Ph.D., continues to discover and share the most effective exercises and insights he has found in his work as a grief, trauma and mental health counselor for over three and a half decades in North America and Africa. His work includes time as a hospice bereavement counselor, social worker, hospital chaplain, responder with the coroner's office for sudden death, mental health consultant and adviser for Santa Cruz Integrative Medicine and Rwandan Oprhan's Project and is presently in private practice. He has 12 books published in the U.S. (see below), 5 children and 2 grandchildren. Visit http://www.gogabriel.com for more information. Books by Gabriel Constans related to grief: 12 books published in the U.S. Those related to grief and loss include: Just a Heartbeat Away - When a Mother Dies of AIDS. The Goddess of Cancer. Picking Up the Pieces - A program about violent death for use with middle school students. Good Grief - Love, Loss and Laughter The Skin of Lions - Rwandan Folk Tales Don't Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief's Wake Up Call. Paging Doctor Leff - Pride, Patriotism and Protest.

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  • Thank you, I just lost my 15 year old dog and there is a huge hole in my heart and my home. In 10 days it will be the first anniversary of my mom’s home going. Seems rather hard to bear it all right now.

  • Gabriel Constans says:

    You are welcome Gayle. I am grateful for the time you got to spend with your dog and your mother and wish it could have been longer for both. What a wonderful gift to have them both in your life and to now keep them close in other ways and continue living through you.

  • Debbie Walters says:

    Thank you so much for this article. I lost my 12 and a half year old dog while I was away on vacation. She ran away fro the sitters, was missing for two days in freezing temperatures and found. She didn’t make it long enough for us to get home and passed 19 hours before we got home. Not being there during her struggle and not being able to say goodbye to my BEST friend is really tearing me up inside. Your comforting words help. I just wish more people understood….

  • Gabriel Constans says:

    You’re welcome Debbie. I’m glad the few words helped a little bit. Am glad you had the time you did with your dog and wish it could have been longer. It seems that there are advantages and disadvantages to being present when someone dies. Sometimes, people wish they hadn’t seen their believed animal or human friend die and have those images and memories and others wish they could have been present there to witness the passing. Which ever takes place, people often wish it could have been otherwise.

  • Natalie says:

    Today I found out that my baby died last night at the vet, while hospitalized. She had recently gotten ill and was deteriorating very quickly. It was all so sudden. The pain is so real, it’s like a chest pain almost. I can hardly stop crying. I wish more people understood too, and it’s in part why I’m here, seeking for validation I guess. What an emptiness, how much pain.

  • Gabriel Constans says:

    Sorry to hear of the loss of your baby Natalie. It sounds so sudden. It would be surprising if you weren’t crying. The pain can feel intense and the feeling of loss and emptiness so overwhelming. Sending you lots of comfort, support and care for you and your friend. Do whatever you need to do (as long it doesn’t hurt yourself or another) to live as fully as possible in the coming days. You will never forget your friend and they will always be with you in one way or another.