Grieving The Loss Of A Loved Animal Companion

Today, perhaps more than ever before in history, our Animal care have played a more important role and assumed a greater meaning and significance in the lives of millions of Americans. It is estimated that there are approximately 68 million dogs and 73 million cats living in U.S, households. and that the pet industry generates nearly $36 billion dollars in revenues per year. As our lives become increasingly stressful and challenging – as our world becomes increasingly complex, perilous, impersonal and technologically oriented, our pets have become more valued, respected and appreciated. Our pets have and continue to become beloved members of our families who provide us with unconditional love, loyalty and acceptance.

Pets are also often our very best and dearest friends, companions and confidants. In a world full of tumult, conflict and fear, their mere presence is comforting, calming and consoling. They offer us a safe haven, a comfort zone, the opportunity to relax, let down our guard, live “in the moment”. and to be genuinely ourselves. They do not judge us and they accept us exactly as we are. They love us no matter what. In addition, our animal companions are affectionate, amusing and entertaining. They are literally “warm and fuzzy” and offer us true love and affection. They even make us laugh at their antics, engage us in play and exercise and help us forget about our problems. They keep us from being lonely and isolated. Although we live in a world full of stress and anxiety, tension and violence, hostility and negativity and although many of our lives are fraught with fear and dread of what tomorrow may bring, our beloved pets teach us to live in the present moment and with spontaneity. They teach us to accept what is…not to fear the future or dwell on the past.

Many of us find ourselves living far away from family and fiends – our professions, opportunities for higher education and improved financial circumstances, military service, etc. are responsible for our relocation from home and family to new communities, cities, countries and even continents. We are strangers in a new environment and culture. It is difficult to make new friends and to establish meaningful and heartfelt relationships. We live alone. We work alone – many of us barely connecting with one another – many of us interfacing with technology rather than with other human beings.

We seek contact with others – we are in need of friendship, communication and support. Many of us, unable to forge bonds with fellow human beings, adopt animal companions. They become a part of our lives, hearts and homes. There are no secrets between us. We come to know each other intimately. We forge a deep, powerful and genuine bond with them, and in many cases, incorporate and integrate them into members of our families – adopted children, siblings, nieces, nephews, etc.

Few, if any human beings, can offer the beauty and purity, nobility and vulnerability of spirit, loyalty, unconditional love, acceptance, forgiveness and empathy of an animal companion. They are genuinely who they are and allow us, in turn, to be who we genuinely are. There is no pretense, no facade, no agenda, no artifice on the part of our pets – what we see is what we get! We can sigh with relief and satisfaction as we return home to be greeted by our pets after a hard, stress-filled and challenging day at work. Our pets welcome us with unabashed enthusiasm, affection and joy. And we let down our guard – knowing that we can change into our sweat clothes and play on the floor or in the back yard or play room with our animal “kids”. We can happily interact with sentient friends who don’t judge or talk back to us, friends who calm us down and bring us back to reality with priorities intact, friends who seem to understand us “better” than any of our other human friends.

Our animal companions benefit us emotionally, spiritually and physiologically. There is ample scientific data which proves that pet increase both longevity and quality of life. They provide physical and emotional well-being. The simple act of petting an animal friend has proven to be of significant physical and psychological benefit. A pet has a calming effect. Blood pressure is reduced. Heartbeat is improved. Resistance to disease is heightened and tension and anxiety are decreased. Our animal companions reduce stress, fear and anger. They also decrease sadness, loneliness and depression.

As we are their caregivers and responsible for their physical and emotional well-being, they provide many of us with a reason for getting up in the morning – we are responsible for nurturing, communicating and providing love, exercise, proper diet, nutrition and health care for our animal companions. They are sentient creatures who communicate in a language beyond mere words. When we are alone – whether we are single, young, elderly, widowed, separated, or divorced, these beloved ones by means of their simple presence, comfort and console us; they provide love and affection at home as well as on our errands, vacation and travel time. They’re with us 24/7 – when we are reading, writing, at the computer, listening to the radio, watching television, cooking, entertaining, relaxing out on the patio, gardening, socializing, even traveling and on vacation with us. Our animals play a very important role in our general well-being and the way in which we deal with hardship and stress. And the number and intensity of the significant losses (human and otherwise) we have sustained during our lives, will help determine the intensity and amount of time and energy we spend grieving their loss when they die For many of us, our animal companions have afforded us the most stable, comforting and comfortable relationships we have experienced. Yet there are many humans who simply do not understand how deeply we love and care for our animals and who have personally never known the beauty, inspiration and wisdom to be derived from having extensive contact with a loved animal companion. They do not comprehend all the gifts these animals bring to us. For from our pets we learn of life and death, the cycles and seasons of life, the majesty and grandeur of the natural world and the pivotal o link we share with the natural world. There are far too many people who have not had the privilege of experiencing the joy, depth and beauty of knowing a beloved animal companion,, yet they may benefit from the words of the French poet and philosopher, Anatole Fance, who said, “Unless one has loved an animal a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” Those of us privileged enough to know and love animals benefit profoundly and learn so many lessons about life and death; through the observation of and interaction with our pets, we learn much about the meaning and purposefulness of all life and the interconnectedness of all living creatures who share the earth.

From the moment we adopt a loving animal companion, our lives are irrevocably transformed. We learn to SHARE our hearts and our lives with these magnificent creatures; we hopefully make a lifetime commitment to provide health, peace happiness, well-being and harmony to the beautiful ones we adopt. We assume responsibility for their care and well-being. We do our best to ensure that they will share a happy, healthy, peaceful and fulfilling life with us and our other family members. Seldom do we pause and think about the fact that their lives are generally shorter than our own; that they will confront and be diagnosed with diseases and ailments as well as medical treatments similar to our own, that they will grow old and that they will one day die – whether from illness, injury, accident, etc. They, like us, are vulnerable and mortal. Life for them is, as for us, arbitrary, unpredictable and full of loss, grief and adversity. We are friends, teachers and guides to them as they are to us.

From our animal companions we learn much about growing old, for their aging process mirrors and mimics our own. We observe them as they become less active and robust; as they become less alert and attentive; as they lose interest in the food they relished and the toys and games in which they delighted. Their muzzles become grey or white; their gaze becomes dim; their hearing is less acute; they spend most of their time sleeping; they may be immobile and/or incontinent. They isolate and withdraw from us…In so many ways, they are like aging humans…

When our beloved pets have been diagnosed with a terminal illness such as cancer or HIV; when they are in great pain and obviously suffering; when they are not mobile and are incontinent; when they stop eating and drinking; when it is obvious that they are no longer experiencing a significant quality of life, we are faced with several options. One is to simply wait for them to die on their own, “naturally” and let their suffering continue living. The other is to help put a merciful end to their suffering by having them euthanized. Euthanasia is the Greek term meaning “good death”, and it is administered by a trusted veterinarian -presumably one that has known you and your pet and provided treatment and advice over the years. The procedure is quick and virtually painless. However, the decision to have a pet euthanized is one of the most difficult and complex decisions we may ever make. It is also one of the least selfish, most compassionate and humane decisions we will make. We have done everything in our power to help our pets – provided loving care, medical attention, special diets, holistic and homeopathic remedies in addition to traditional medical procedures – and yet we have not been able to improve the quality of life for our beloved family member. Before making the decision to euthanize our pet, it is wise to research the subject and reflect upon our own spiritual/religious and philosophical orientation as well as what other religions and philosophies teach.

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