Losing a Furry Family-Member… It Hurts as Much as Any Other Loss

This is Fuzzy. She’s our office pet therapist, and my dog by default. She belonged to both of my spouses before their deaths, and she could not get past the losses she could not understand. So now she’s with me pretty much every waking moment, mostly because she poodle stalks me and will not allow me to go anywhere without her. She has a front carrier I wear when we need to run errands, and a therapy dog tag that opens doors for us. She can’t tolerate being left alone, and if I have to be gone she needs a sitter or she will run away. She’s also fourteen years old, is losing her vision, and falls over if she moves too fast or leans too much. Despite that she’s a bossy little critter who makes cranky kids smile in store lines, comforts my clients on bad days, distracts kids in my office and teaches them how to redirect their behavior, and greets every client who comes in the door with her tail wagging. (Then she gets lost trying to find her way back to me).

Fuzzy has had a long and good life, despite the losses she’s experienced. She’s had four kids who loved her from the age of six weeks, rides on our Spyder in her leather bomber jacket, been camping, learned to bark for whip cream, and now gets to go everywhere we go. She’s also a handful when I have clients one after another and no potty break times, when she decides she wants one of our lunches more than her own, and now she has to be reminded to drink hourly (and she has learned to drink from a water bottle!). Will I miss her when she’s gone?

You bet. Look at that face, and those eyes. She’s seen me through children joining us, spouses dying, holidays, celebrations, good days, the worst days. She grieved with us when we had to put our Princess to sleep last spring after fourteen years and a battle with cancer, and she has helped to train new kitties who joined the family. She’s been a part of almost every event in my life from my thirties to my fifties. Think about that- some of the most significant years as we move from early adulthood to thinking about retirement in the distant future. Young kids to grandmotherhood.

We therapists sometimes refer to pet loss as “disenfranchised grief.” Losses that somehow don’t count. Or don’t count as much or enough. Losses that can be minimized easily as something you should be able to get over quickly. Pets dying are frequently seen as a loss you get over by replacing the pet or being glad you no longer have the responsibility for the pet’s needs.

Interesting, huh? A grief so profound we have to make up a name for its impact and the fact that others ignore or minimize it. A grief that’s just as hard as any other. Any loss is experienced at 100%. Your furry family member is a huge loss, and you have a need to work through it. I guarantee when I lose Fuzzy there will be tears, an empty spot in her bed in my car, and a hole in the fabric of our office for me and our clients – and I suspect some of our staff. There won’t be a small critter chasing cats off our bed at night like a mad silent bull, or a wagging tail hopeful for a new dress in the morning to leave for work. It won’t be the same to go to the store without a dog pack, even if it is a pain now. There will be a hole in the early morning as we drink coffee without her barking at us to sit next to us.

Can I make her loss any less by bringing a rescue home? No. Not a bit. After being widowed- twice- I remarried. Did my new spouse become my old one, and replicate what was missing? Are you kidding? They were irreplaceable to me, and still are. I still miss them, even though I am very happy and loved in my new marriage. I love the companionship, but I am married to someone new. A new dog won’t replace Fuzzy. I’ll still miss her and grieve for her. I’ll still talk about her, and her face will pop up on Facebook memories because I take a lot of pictures of her. That ache you feel when you think about a lost person? The same ache applies to other losses, including your furry companions. The same kinds of reminders occur. The same waves of grief.

So how do we un-disenfranchise this grief for our critters? …

The same way we deal with grief for our other loved ones. We talk about them. We say their names. We don’t dwell on the losses, but we acknowledge the hurt, and we remember the happy moments and the way they enriched our lives. We acknowledge the losses other experience with the loss of a furry friend. I send a card, and sometimes flowers. Why? Because that critter was a member of that family, and someone is crying for those furry ears to pet and paw to hold. And they need to know it matters.

All grief counts. At 100%. Fuzzy will too.