The relationship and attachment that animal lovers have with their pets is often extremely difficult for non-animal lovers to comprehend. They often cannot see that each animal has its own distinct characteristics and personality. They miss out on the joy, love, frustration and bond that is so much a part of the relationship and responsibility that goes with being a pet owner.
Having a pet is a great leveller, they are no respecter of persons or status – having a dog jump up and welcome someone with enthusiasm, or a cat weave in and out of someones’ ankles is often a great ice breaker. Many people will react positively and bend down to stroke Fido or Tiddles. Even pet birds and fish will attract attention and interest. They make a house feel more like a home and are something that we have to consider when we are making plans and arrangements. They become part of our mental check list of important concerns and responsibilities almost without our realising it.
So when we have had that lovely creature as a part of our lives for some time, it is devastating when they become unwell or unable to cope with dignity. Sometimes we may not know their history, where they came from. how they had been treated. All my animals have been strays. My cats have all turned up at my house and moved in, sometimes creating havoc at the outset. I remember one special day when a little feral mum had her kittens in my porch while I stroked her head. They moved in the same day. Likewise, my dogs. One was found on the motorway with some broken string round her neck, in a very bad condition. So, as with many people, I take these animals to the vets, get them checked over, vaccinated, neutered and then treat them like royalty.
How do we decide when to let them go ? Sometimes the decision is taken out of our hands and they die peacefully at home or at the vets. Other times the animal is maybe distressed or in pain and we have to make that decision for them. One of my cats disappeared and I searched for her for days without ever finding out what happened to her. Another cat was diagnosed with a terminal illness, but it was clear that he was not ready to go and he lived happily for another nine months on sliced chicken breasts until he eventually took a turn for the worse and I let him go. All are buried in my garden, marked with engraved headstones.
This brings us to the next stage in the cycle. Getting over the loss of a family pet, a special part of the family is tough and there is a natural grieving process to be dealt with. In a family with children, it may be their first experience of death, and it is often their first experience of the death of a loved close playmate. Grandparents can appear to be very old to children, loved but a little distant. Sometimes their death can be a little abstract. Often a pet has been an important part of their daily routine and may have been with them their whole life, playing, comforting, sharing secrets, perhaps a major companion.
So it is often helpful to let children decide if they want to be involved in some of the decisions that are to be taken, especially if there is to be a burial or a little ritual or prayer to signify the death. This will help the child to grieve and come to terms with what has happened. Talking about what has happened is important too. To acknowledge that something important and significant has taken place shows respect for the part that the animal has had in their young life. It is also a way of introducing and teaching children about lifes’ cycle, an important lesson for them to learn.
Allowing children to talk about their pet, telling stories about their time together, encouraging them to grieve, answering their questions, remembering with affection and acknowledging how they feel is an important part of enabling a young person to understand about death in a natural accepting way. That is a healthy way to cope with something that they will come across at different times throughout their life.
Susan Leigh, Counsellor and Hypnotherapist