Monday, February 29, 2016

Pet Loss: The Pain of Relinquishment

Some people believe holding on and hanging in there are signs of great strength. However, there are times when it takes much more strength to know when to let go and then do it. ~ Ann Landers

A reader writes: I have had lots of animals all my life, raised English setters and had lots of cats and farm animals. I am in the process of selling our farm, my husband retiring and we will be moving to a different area. We realized that we could not take our pets with us.
We had littermate male and female cats aged l0 years of age and our 7 years old English Setter. Last November the male cat had to be put to sleep due to illness. My sister offered to take our dog and he went in January. He had a major medical upset which we think was from the stress of moving, but has settled into his new home now. My female cat I tried to find a home for and to no avail. I placed her with Cat Anonymous to be adopted. Both these parts were very traumatic for me. Having had animals all my life it is very hard to grieve for them. How do you do this when they are still alive but you no longer own them? 

My cat was adopted through someone my hairdresser knew. She had a very hard time at the adopt place and my guilt and sadness were compounded. She has a very loving home now. Would it help to go and see this cat and spend time with her to help me say goodbye? I think my animals are doing okay but I seem to be having a hard time dealing with the loss. People get tired of hearing about it and so I don't talk and cry which is part of the healing. Are there some books relating to animal loss that I could get that would help? Are there any support groups for pet loss in Ontario? I hope you can give me some ideas to help me get on with my grieving and live a happier life. I don't have children so I guess this compounded things.

My response:
I'm so very sorry to learn that circumstances have forced you to relinquish all of your beloved pets, and I can only imagine how devastating this must feel to you. You say that since you don't have human children, “I guess this compounded things”—and I couldn't agree with you more. If in your heart of hearts you considered these precious animal companions as your “fur children,” you would not be alone.

As an animal lover myself, I can assure you that over the years, I have loved my dogs just as much as I love my (human) children and grandchildren—and that does not mean that I cannot distinguish between my love for humans and my love for animals. It's just that our animal companions love us in a way that's different from how our fellow human beings love us, and the love we feel for them is different, too.

The love we feel from our pets is unconditional, complete, unwavering, loyal to a fault, and completely without judgment. Is it any wonder that we miss them so much when they are no longer with us—regardless of the reason? And in some ways, having to relinquish our pets to someone else can be even more painful than knowing they have died—because we know that they are still here in this physical world, but they are not present with us. So it's hard to know how to continue loving them in their absence, especially when we know their unconditional love is now being given to someone other than ourselves.

All of this can leave us feeling angry, guilty, sad, lonely, jealous—as well as pleased, proud and grateful that we were able to find someone else willing to provide our beloved pets with a happy, loving home—an entire mish-mash of conflicting feelings! And you are not crazy or silly to be having any of these feelings. These are normal reactions. Grief is a natural response to losing someone we loved very much, and we grieve in proportion to the attachment we have to those we have lost. In that sense, grief is the price we pay for loving.

You may be thinking, "I shouldn't feel this way because I know my pets aren't dead"—but feelings aren't always rational, and they are neither right or wrong—they just are, and it's very important to acknowledge and express them so they can be dealt with, worked through and released. Yes, your pets are still alive, but they are no longer with you, you still miss them terribly, a part of you may still feel guilty for having to give them up in the first place, and you still need to let yourself grieve your loss of them.

I cannot say whether visiting your cat will help—you know yourself and this cat better than I do —but I can alert you to some things you may want to consider.

You say you know that "she has a very loving home now." Would visiting her in her new home make it more difficult for you to adjust to her loss—or harder for her to adapt to her life without you? Might her new person mistakenly get the impression that you are "checking up" on her and you don't trust her enough to take proper care of her?

Keep in mind that saying a proper and thorough goodbye to your cat doesn't necessarily require that you are together with her physically. This goodbye is more for YOU than it is for your cat. Perhaps you can say goodbye to (and ask forgiveness from) her spirit, by creating some sort of special goodbye ritual—using your imagination and doing whatever feels right for you. Light a candle, write a poem, plant a rose bush in her honor, create a little place of remembrance complete with photographs where you can go to think about and remember (and talk to) your lost pets in your new home—whatever you do is totally up to you. What's important is that you find a way to meet your own need to say goodbye, so that these precious animal companions are freed to move on with their new families and you are freed from all those negative and painful feelings.

Keep in mind, too, that although you must find a way to let them go, you need not let go of the relationship you have had with them—for that will stay with you as long as you keep your memories of them alive in your heart and in your mind. Remember, talk about and cherish all those special moments—that is their legacy of love to you. Relinquishing them to someone else does not mean that you must erase all memories of them in your own life! Why would you want to do that when they meant so much to you?

It does help to talk with others whose experiences may be similar to your own, and there are many ways to do this. Since you live in Ontario, I encourage you to contact a wonderful pet loss resource, Ontario Pet Loss Support Group, available to you both in person and as a closed group on Facebook. You might also try joining the Loss of a Pet forum in our online Grief Healing Discussion Groups, which can put you in touch with others whose experiences may be similar to your own—and which may help you feel less alone and "crazy" in your grief. And be sure to read my article, Grief And The Burden Of Guilt, as I think it may offer you some good ideas as well.

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