Monday, January 18, 2016

Pet Loss: Deciding When to Bury The Body

[Reviewed and updated August 10, 2021]

Even out of unspeakable grief, beautiful things take wing. ~ A.R. Torres

A reader writes: I hope you don't mind if I vent to you, since I feel so very safe in your caring heart, and I'm just falling apart here lately, so need that professional and personal understanding only someone like you can give.

I’ve just returned from a two-week trip with my dear husband, who went all-out in planning our get-away, knowing how down I was about the death of [my cat]. I'd hoped this trip would somewhat rejuvinate me before I had to plan for the first anniversary of her death, and likely burial on the same day. But I'm finding I'm still not feeling at all ready to give up her body, even now.

It seems way too soon, and with everything else I've busied myself with over the year, I've not even “visited” with her as much as I'd planned to before having to give her up. So I'm in a total panic now—not wanting to do this, but feeling guilty for keeping her in our freezer for so long, and thinking it would be most fitting to lay her to rest on her One Year, when I'm going to be feeling terrible anyway but just not wanting to, regardless. And yet, I hate to drag this out, and also don't want to have to make us go through this, practically-speaking, as the weather grows colder. So....NOTHING seems right at ALL, and I'm so disappointed in myself it's not funny! I don't know WHICH voice in my head to listen to right now, as none of them agree with each other!

I've also realized that I've been playing the avoidance game all of those things you can only see in retrospect. While I thought I was doing so many of the “right” things, I think I was really just avoiding the crushing pain of her absence. And now it's all caught up to me, suddenly and with a vengeance. I cry every single day, and yet it still seems like there's a bottomless pit of anguish yet to be tapped. Even with the memory of the pain of my first cat’s death to go by, this is so much worse I can't even believe it! It's totally terrifying and I don't feel like I can believe I'll live through this now....even though I've survived so far. When I touch upon the deepest parts of my grief, I have to pull away again within seconds, it's so agonizing. It's terrifying to think there's so much pain inside me.

My husband and I keep finding that although we always knew our furkids really were special (as was my relationship with them, compared to just about everyone else's with their own), even WE weren't completely aware (and we were pretty darn savvy!) of just how unique and incredible they always were, on so many levels! Sometimes I thought it might just be my parently pride coloring my opinions, but it seems that wasn't the case at all! Who knew?! It's both incredibly beautiful a thing AND so utterly devastating a thing to lose, I can't stand it. So the pain just keeps getting worse and worse, not easing up as I'd hoped. I feel like a helpless babe, with no mother to take care of me...and no mother to BE, either. What am I to do with myself???? I am in swirling desperation.

My response: I’m so sorry to learn that you are torturing yourself for not being ready to give up your cat’s body to a grave. Forgive me, my dear, but what is the rush here? If you’re not ready to do this yet, then you’re simply not ready. For whom are you doing this anyway? You don’t have to answer to anyone except yourself about this, do you? What difference does it make if you keep her body in your freezer for another month, or even another year? No one has to know her body is still in your freezer unless you choose to tell them so. It seems to me that when you’re ready you will know it, and this is something you cannot force. Well, that isn’t exactly true, I suppose. Certainly you can force yourself to bury your kitty in time for the one-year anniversary of her death, but if you’re too exhausted, too distraught, too caught up in “swirling desperation,” it doesn’t seem to me to be a good time for you to be doing this. This is an arbitrary deadline, after all, is it not? In reality, it’s just another day on the calendar, not much different from any other day. It has no more meaning or significance than what you yourself decide to invest in it. So in the end, what difference does it really make?

I know you’re still deep in mourning over the death of your beloved kitties, you’re fed up with this earthly existence, and you’re wanting desperately to join them both. I have no words of wisdom for you that will make this any easier for you. All I can tell you is that there have been many times in my life when, for many different reasons, I’ve felt exactly the same way that you are feeling now. I’ve learned enough about life to know that there will be times when I will feel that way again, too, because nothing lasts forever.

When my beloved cockapoo Muffin died many years ago, I was totally convinced that I would never love another animal companion the way I loved that darling little creature. I have since learned that I was absolutely right ~ today I simply do not love anyone or anything the way I loved back then, or even ten, fifteen, or twenty years ago. Today I am a totally different person from the one I used to be. I’ve lived more, learned more, loved more, lost more. I appreciate and look at life differently now, and I suppose if I live another ten or twenty years, I will appreciate and look at life differently then too, because things change, circumstances change, people change, and I have learned that I, too, will change. When the time finally came that I decided to bring another dog into my life, I soon discovered that I could not imagine my life without that precious little creature either. Our Tibetan terrier Beringer was very different from Muffin, but he was completely wonderful in a thousand other ways that I never noticed were not present in Muffin!

What is more, when Muffin was in my life, I took for granted the notion that he would always be there; it never occurred to me that one day he would die. With Beringer, not a day went by that I didn’t think of how I would feel when he died, and I was consciously aware of and grateful for every day of the 14 years I had him in my life. It’s difficult to put into words, but I was aware that I was loving him in a very different way from how I loved my Muffin, because I knew I was experiencing a different, more mature, and more realistic kind of love. Quite simply, I learned that I am better at loving than I used to be.

I can assure you that none of this happened overnight! After my beloved Muffin died, three years passed before I could so much as tell the story of his life and tragic, accidental death ~ and even then it wasn’t planned!  I happened to be taking a creative writing class, and one of our assignments was to write a description of an important person who’d had a great impact on our lives.  I asked if that “person” could be a companion animal.  The teacher was a little taken aback, but she reluctantly said okay.  I wrote a piece entitled Memories of Muffin, and I couldn’t even read it out loud to my classmates without sobbing when I got to the part about his dying.  I didn’t know it at the time, but several years later that same piece was to become the introduction to my book, The Final Farewell: Preparing for and Mourning the Loss of Your Pet.  My reaction to Muffin’s death and what I subsequently learned from that is what initially got me interested in the subject of pet loss and grief, and played a significant part in my decision to become a grief counselor.  So you just never know where these major crises in life will lead you ~ or how long it will take you to get there!    

I waited ten years after Muffin’s death to get another dog ~ I simply was not ready to give my heart to another. Looking back, I can see now that I needed those years not to be somebody’s mother, whether the kids were human or animal (Muffin died the summer before my youngest son left home for college). I used those years to re-connect with my husband, to enjoy a new-found freedom, to grow in another direction, and to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, now that my nest was empty.

My dear, I see you struggling to do the same, and I remind you that grief is a process, not a single event. The phase you are in now is one that requires quiet space and time for reflection, contemplation, meditation, dreaming, discovery, and renewal. You’re like a caterpillar who needs to stay in your cocoon until you are ready to be transformed, until you become the butterfly you are meant to be. Your nest is empty, too, and you need time alone and with your husband to figure out who you are as individuals and as a couple, time to focus on your own and each other’s needs without anyone else in your household being dependent upon you. Even if you decide together to be fur-parents again one day, it seems to me you need to give yourselves time right now just to be, both as individuals and as a couple. The answers will come to you, if you deliberately construct your lives in such a way as to give them enough time and space to develop. Obviously a two-week vacation is simply not enough.

A wise man once said that our purpose in life is to discover our gifts, but the meaning in life is to give them away. Use this time to think about what you will do with all the gifts you are discovering in yourself, and what meaning you will find in your life as you continue to offer them to others. Look to the day when you will emerge from that cocoon, find your beautiful wings, and learn to fly . . .

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© by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, BC-TMH

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