Grieving the loss of a pet companion

Quite often I work with people who are experiencing grief and loss in their lives. I’ve dealt with the loss of my own parents among other losses, but until this past month I had not had to deal with the death of a beloved dog of mine. True, a year ago a friend who rents a room from me lost her 14-year-old dog, and that hit close to home as I’d come to love that furry friend. And earlier this year a dog for whom I’d been the surrogate mom for a number of years and then become my sister’s loved furry friend died. And that left a hole. But in late October my boy, Punky, died at the age of 13 following a rapid decline from liver cancer. Diagnosed one day, gone the next. And with his death I came directly, shockingly, abruptly, and painfully to the beginning of learning to cope with the loss of my dear companion and co-therapist. When I’ve worked with others who have struggled with coming to terms with the loss of a pet I’ve had compassion for their loss. The symptoms, to many people’s surprise, are much the same as any loss, and often as or more significant than the loss of a friend or family member. Why? Because the pet companion offers a more unconditional love than many of us humans are capable of with each other. A friend put it in this way recently to me, “I don’t think it’s any mistake that dog and God are spelled with the same three letters and are mirror-opposites in spelling.” Also, often the pet, as was true with Punky, was a witness to my life and activities. I was fortunate enough to also work with him for years. So we had a regular routine and joint comings and goings. He could predict nearly my every move. This is true for many pet-lovers of any length of time, there is a sync to our lives and activities and the loss of this is a unique loss to other types of loss. One step in healing is often to memorialize our fur baby in some way. I chose to write a letter to Punky that expressed my feelings about him and our life together. Here are a few snippets from it:

You walked into my life unsought.

You captured my heart in a moment.

So swiftly, surely, unblinkingly.

A little fuzzy pooh with eyes

That warmed, snuggled in, said so confidently,

“You’re mine. Take me home.”

And I did.

You grew, you jumped, you ran.

You, dearest Punky, taught me searching is ok.

Laughter comes from simple actions.

Joy comes with love.

You also taught me, dearest Punky, love means terror for your safety,

Sacrifice at the most inconvenient of times.

Confidence it would all somehow work out.

As my co-therapist you helped me to wait,

To slow down, move carefully.

Sometimes my clients grew not

From my actions or knowledge or words.

But from you. Your unconditional regard.

You often drew them out –

Helped them relax. Then let me work.

Protected.

I miss your gentle, soft kisses, my dear Punky.

Your tongue that licked so gently to say

“I love you” and “Good morning! Let’s go!!!”

You going up from floor to foot stool to couch.

One fluid movement.

Through you, Punky, my ability

To give love goes on.

Dearest boy, run pain free now.

You can see Punky had much influence on me. I hope to use this to urge anyone grieving the loss of a pet to reach out. Talk to a friend. Make a memorial of your own to your pet. Count the ways you’ve been loved and loved and feel the loss. Honor that relationship. Just a dog? A cat? Another pet? No, I think not. Honor your companion and all that means to you. Only through working through your feelings and dealing with all the small and large changes their passing has brought to your life can you be free to love again. If you need help most humane societies, the ASPCA, some hospices (like Hospice of the Valley), and other related places offer grief support materials and groups. It’s ok. As we know, our friend is free to run in health and we will be free to love in health again.

Dr. Beth

(Punky worked side-by-side with Dr. Beth for most of his 13 years. Many clients have also grieved his passing as they have learned of it given the special work he did and love he offered. Dogs and other animals are used in many forms of therapy including psychological, medical support, occupational therapy, and equestrian therapy for special needs as well as emotional healing. If you would like to help non-profits who provide such work check your local area.)

Dr. Sikora comfort hope

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