By Cori Bussolari —
Almost 16 years ago, and without warning, I become Person to an eight-week old Siamese kitten my husband and I named Vegas. I grew up solely with dogs because my mother had allergies, and while I liked any one of my previous roommate’s cats, I never seriously thought about having one of my own.
I couldn’t imagine anything that would elicit the type of feelings I felt towards the dogs of my youth. Thus, with strong reservations, and with my husband’s encouragement, I took responsibility of this tiny little feline creature when all I really wanted was a dog. For about 5 minutes…
I fell head over heals in love-there is really no other way to describe it. Vegas never grew physically bigger than six pounds and she had only four teeth (she had to have them removed when she was a year old), but she was a giant. She talked constantly and ruled our home, and because she was, in my words, “perfect” I “just had” to get two more cats as well as a dog–to the bemusement of friends and family.
While I am quite sure that most people feel similarly about their pets, my strong bond with Vegas made it exponentially more difficult when we had to euthanize her a few weeks ago. There was nothing we could do-one minute she was fine, the next she was diagnosed with cancer and unable to breathe. My grief continues to remain palpable.
I know all the ‘right’ things to do in order to grieve and engage in self-care-the things I help my bereaved clients with. Both of my parents died when I was a teenager and the messages were clear–A parent’s death is universally considered a tragic happening and the responses from friends, family, acquaintances, and even strangers are usually supportive and empathic.
When Vegas died, however, it wasn’t so clear, as the loss of a pet can cause substantial ambiguity around the validity of grief. At these times, we might stifle our feelings and try to act as if everything is back to normal. Yet, these strong and difficult feelings continue to be present. Disenfranchised Grief is the result of such a loss–as with the death of a pet–that is not felt to be socially acknowledged or considered a valid reason for mourning.
I knew that I could rely upon a few select people for support, which I readily did. Many people however, don’t know how to appropriately respond to this type of loss, especially when they never experienced the depth of connection with a pet. More often than not, a well meaning acquaintance would say something like, “Oh, that’s too bad. Are you getting another one?” Vegas was not a car or a plant that I could immediately replace. She was a very important part of my life and no matter how many animals I may have in the future, she will forever be irreplaceable.
I am by no means comparing the death of an important person to the death of a pet–there is absolutely no comparison. I am, however, extremely clear on two things. Firstly, people attach to their pet and other people in similar ways–we become very bonded-and secondly, the loss of that animal can, and usually does, cause significant grief.
It is very important for those of us who are going through pet loss to take the opportunity to create a space that allows us to mourn this difficult loss. I have found that it is sometimes helpful to think of grief as a signal that we want and need to maintain a connection with what we have lost. You can do this by:
1) acknowledging that this is a major stressor and loss for you, whether or not other people may feel the same way. What is most important is that you are feeling grief and you have every right to feel this way. This is a valid loss and ALL of your feelings are important.
2) accessing your social support system or finding one that can help you through this difficult time. Examples of this could include going to a pet loss support group, individual psychotherapy, or just talking to friends or family that have gone through a similar situation. Your local humane society or veterinarian can be very helpful in making recommendations.
3) understanding that the loss of your pet might bring up issues regarding other previous losses in your life, especially if you didn’t have some type of closure. This is normal, and again, these difficult thoughts and feelings might underscore your need to access support. This is a good time to work through these issues, as the resolution of one loss often has positive cascading effects on subsequent ones.
4) engaging in rituals or activities when you are grieving such as creating a memory book, writing a story or a poem about your pet, or going places you used to take your pet. This is a powerful way to maintain a continuing connection with your pet.
I will never forget my tiny, four-toothed kitty. Through my connection with Vegas, I have learned even more about caring, responsibility and unconditional love. I can truly demonstrate compassion towards myself as well as honor our strong bond by recognizing that I am grieving and giving myself permission to mourn this very significant loss.
Cori Bussolari, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist specializing in chronic illness and bereavement issues. She is also an Assistant Professor and the Coordinator of the Marriage and Family Therapy program at the University of San Francisco. You can contact Dr. Bussolari at [email protected] or through her private practice at 415-572-5656.