Often when we think of losing a pet, our heart feels broken. I know. Recently we lost our beloved 16 year old Emi. For many years she was the baby of the pack. Then before we knew it, she was no longer the baby but the oldest. Gradually, she became our grand old lady of 16 years. And as she became that grand lady so also came the frailties of old age. With those changes also came the changing interactions between her and her dog siblings. Some of her siblings would snuggle up to her, while others were far less tolerant. But with her loss, we became aware how each member of her pack family showed their own reaction to the loss of missing Emi.
Emi had known her own losses. Going from baby to the grand lady meant she’d experienced losses of pack family. Her reaction to each loss was different, just as ours was. The one that seemed to have the most significance was losing Fletcher. Fletcher hadn’t always been a part of our family, but he became an important companion to her. He’d been under our care a few different times, then became a permanent member after suffering an attack. The two were bonded. Emi sensed Fletcher would have a short life while with us. She also knew they were important to one another. Even though her health was gradually declining she made the decision to not leave before Fletcher. After Fletcher died, Emi’s health began to fail more rapidly. Animals can and do stay around to help one another. Emi communicated that this was her desires. Though there are stories of terminally ill people staying until they’ve done or completed something, many are surprised to learn animals, especially pets stay as well, for one another.
We recognize our grief with the death of a pet. But we generally do not recognize that pets grieve as well, over the death of family members. All too often the grief they experience is overlooked or not recognized. Outdated ideas may be the reason their feelings are overlooked. For far too many years it’s been taught that animals don’t have feelings or not the same kind of feelings we do. Not true. Why do we choose to believe pets gives unconditional love, while failing to understand this means they also experience grief.
In only a few stories has it been written and told about pets left behind who mourn the loss of a dearly loved owner. A few movies have told the stories. One such story is about a dog who went to the train station, as he had done for many years, waiting for a deceased owner to get off the train to walk home. Or the story of a devoted military dog in grief over the loss of his handler.
Loss is not just experienced by dogs. There are also stories of horses, birds, cats, and others who shows signs of loss when a loved one died. Most often these stories focus on a pet losing an owner. This loss is the most commonly recognized type of loss, while overlooking a pet losing another family pet member.
Though less common, are the stories of pets losing another animal of the family, to be nurtured back by a caring person. Horses have been known to not follow directions for a time, after the loss of a stablemate. There was a well-known racehorse that could barely walk, after the death of a stablemate. It was soon put to pasture and sold. The new owner, a young girl, recognized the intense grief this horse felt and soothed the horse’s emotional state back until this horse again raced. And there is a story about a goose whose owner went away to college. The goose followed the same routine for months with declining vitality. Concerned for its health, the owner’s mother helped it find a new routine that brought renewed vitality. These are just a few examples of animal’s reaction to losing a person.
Even these stories talk about a human/animal connection. These connections do help an animal find emotional peace after a loss. Sadly, these stories imply the bounds are primarily between animals and humans. Though these bonds are often very strong, they are not the only bonds animals form that cause grief when they experience a loss in their life. There are stories and even a book about how elephants have a very advanced and definite emotional system. Also, some flocks of birds have been known to temporarily be at a loss in flock order and structure, when first losing a flock member. Other animals have as well, been known to have difficulty following directions or adjusting after a loss.
Animals do have an array of feelings, just as we do. Yes, when they lose a significant human in their life they will grieve. They will equally grieve when loosing another animal that has been in their life.
There are far more stories to be told of an animal grieving the loss of an animal family member than human loss. I know of a dog who would go daily to the bearded dragon enclosure, until the owner removed the enclosure. Then for about another couple months went to where the enclosure had been, but with decreasing frequency as the loss lessened. And there was a bird who stopped singing after the family cat wasn’t in the house. The bird didn’t sing again until another cat was introduced to the family. And there are many stories of pets who experienced grief when adopted from a rescue home to a new family. Remember, animals’ bond with one another to form structure and community. These are only a few of the stories I’m aware of from my many years of working with animals. Often, I’m called in to explain and help with the change of behavior noticed by owners. Through both talking with the human and pet, following a loss, helps identify the change in behavior and how to ease the pet’s grief.
The growing number of stories now include my own family. I’ve noticed signs of grief with my family of dogs. First, at bedtime the other dogs refused to go anywhere near Emi’s place on the bed. Then the habit was Emi, our grand lady, was fed first. All the dogs would gather around her dish, seeing what was being offered, waiting for her to start eating, all before going to their own meal mat. After a few days, they each went to their mat without going anywhere near Emi’s. It was obvious, the other dogs would be annoyed when blind unaware Emi would walk all over them. However, after her death, we noticed, the dogs were aware she wasn’t there to walk all over them. I don’t believe they missed being walked on, but they were aware of the change and seemed to look for old and blind Emi to stumble over them without regard for what was in front of her. And sometimes, they seem at a loss of order because the grand old lady of our family was no longer there.
We can help them ease their grief. To help ease our dog’s grief and when appropriate help other animals, I’ve used emotional healing modalities to help. If the other living pets can be near the dead animal, it helps them understand what has happened. Too often we need to bring an ill pet to the veterinary office. Alive when we leave the house and then come home without them. This can cause some confusion with those left at home. They know the one leaving is in I’ll health but don’t necessarily understand why it never returns. Or when there is an in-home euthanasia happens, the living animals are often kept in a separate room, thus away from being with the transition of their peer. It can help them with their grief to be allowed to be present and help by offering comfort to the one transitioning. Just as we can become stuck in our grief, so may family pets.
There are many modalities that can be used to help animals not stay stuck, but rather move through their grief. Modalities used included flower and herbal essences, essential oils, hands on healing, as well talking with them about our loss and the change in our life. I’m also aware of people using acupressure or acupuncture to help their pets. There are as well many other techniques. It is our responsible as best we can, to figure out what can be done and what’s best for our loved pets still in our care. If we are living, human or animal, we experience grief with our losses. As is ours, so their grief is real. It’s important that it be taken into consideration and not brushed off. Helping another, by recognizing their grief and helping them through their process is a gift we can give them.
When we honestly acknowledge another’s feelings, especially with the discomfort we feel around grief and loss, its one significant way we share with all other living beings.
Also true is, loved ones, human and animal, that pass, usually choose to come back in spirit to be near us. It’s especially easy for pets to come back to visit and watch over us when they are in spirit. They often want to continue to be near us, keeping us in their love. And by us, I’m including the human and pet members in their pack, pride, flock, group, family, however they see us, it’s love in its purest.