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From a letter I received from a reader:

Sid,

I read most of your book [the same night I got it]—couldn’t put it down, and I’ve already lent it to a friend. I should definitely get more in the future. It’s a great resource. It even helped with some more grieving I needed to do for my parents.

Again, thanks,

— Cristina O.

This letter exemplifies a key, yet perhaps unanticipated point about pet loss: When you undergo the grieving process for a beloved animal companion, you also can expect to have the pain of old losses resurface. Grief is never really “done.” There are always new layers to experience, and these often link themselves to times when you’re experiencing similar emotions. This probably has to do with the particular neuro-pathways utilized for those kinds of feelings—can’t be sure, though; I left my copy of “Brain Surgery for Dummies” in my other suit—or maybe it’s a case of internal “misery loves company”-ism that brings those old emotions along for the current ride.

But revisiting old sorrows isn’t always a bad thing. Every time we do, we get rid of more toxins through our tears, we understand a bit more about our selves and how that person/pet fit into our lives then and now, we learn to value and appreciate what we have in the present, and so forth. A pet loss today can also open the heart to grief we avoided altogether in the past.

I was recently talking to a counselor friend of mine who told me the story of a rescued ragdoll cat, Teddy, she’d had for only a few short months before he died suddenly of feline leukemia. She said she sobbed uncontrollably for several days, only to realize that this cat’s purpose in her life was to remind her of an earlier loss she’d never fully grieved.

The cat she had for 21 years as she was growing up, the faithful friend who’d slept beside her head on her pillow for every day of their lives together, had been put to sleep by her father just after she’d moved out of her parents’ home and had just had her first child. Because of her emotional and energetic focus on her baby, she tucked away her really deep feelings for this cat and never shed a tear for his passing. It wasn’t until this recent rescue of a cat that resembled her childhood pet and his hasty demise that those four-decade-old feelings of grief got uncorked.

A ragdoll cat (Kodi Photo Credit: © Barbara Pierce )

Once she’d put the clues together for herself, acknowledging Teddy’s selfless purpose for entering her life, she noticed that a stray cat she’d never seen before would be sitting atop his grave in her yard every day as she walked to her mailbox. This went on for two full weeks, and then, as abruptly as it had appeared, that messenger cat was suddenly never seen before.

Because our animal friends have shorter life spans than we do, part of their jobs, as it were, in this lifetime is to help us humans become accustomed to and more accepting of death as a part of the natural order of things. They heal us and make us stronger as we mourn the passing of each of these dear companions. It’s just one more thing to thank them for.

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You know it’s true. We animal lovers get a raw deal when it comes to mourning the death of our pets. Case in point, a woman who’d lost a companion animal emailed me this: “I feel so guilty for grieving over the loss of my pets over the years…maybe your book will help me to let go of that guilt, as so many people will say, ‘God, it’s only a dog’!!!!”

I wish it were as easily accomplished as my saying to her, “As a bona fide animal chaplain, I absolve you of your guilt here and now!” Say, I wonder how I’d look in a pet-hair-covered leotard and cape?

Seriously though, her feelings are not uncommon. In researching my book, Good Grief: Finding Peace After Pet Loss, I repeatedly heard that people had an easier time getting past the death of a human relative than they did the loss of their pets. This comes as no surprise since our society gives us “permission” to grieve a person’s death. They offer us compassion and patience as we process the feelings of loss.

Surely they would extend that same support to us for our grief over the death of the companions who were by our side 24/7 and who loved us without conditions or complications, right? Nope. Flying in the face of all logic, most people expect us to shrug off that kind of loss; they even perceive us as defective for feeling lingering sorrow or pain. This is absolutely ludicrous! The amount of grief we feel is commensurate with the amount of love we shared with our animal family members. Such feelings are normal and appropriate. However, we mustn’t unconsciously vow to be “stuck” in a negative emotion forever.

Risking loving again is precisely what will heal our hearts, as long as we don’t rush into adopting another pet too soon. We must still work through the worst of our grief beforehand, as denying or burying those feelings can produce disastrous effects in our health and relationships—even those with future pets.

For folks who feel trapped in their grief, try this visualization technique: Imagine your deceased pet’s spirit is working on the Other Side to bring you another pet, one paw picked just for you, to arrive when your heart is ready to receive him or her. This allows you to be open to moving on without fear that you might be betraying his memory. Instead, you’ll be honoring your departed pet by entrusting him to help you choose wisely, to give you a sense of certainty when the right new critter comes along.

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