Furever in my heart

When supporting clients who have experienced or are experiencing  the death of a pet, one of the common questions that comes up is “Should I get another pet?” This post from The Human Society of the United States summarizes it in one statement.  Don’t make any sudden moves, and “You’ll know when the time is right…”

In my personal and professional opinion, if you consider all the practicalities, there are no wrong answers. By practicalities I mean ask yourself the same practical questions you would ask when obtaining any pet.

Can I afford this pet?

Does my lifestyle allow me to take care of this pet?

Are all two legged, four-legged, winged, scaled, and finned family members in alignment with my decision? (Of course, for anybody other than two-legged, tacked on to the answer would be “As far as I know.”)

Am I truly mentally and emotionally prepared for a new love, and potentially a new loss?

Have I processed my grief? If I have not processed my grief, am I choosing to continue to process my grief while moving forward at the same time? With - not instead of.

Licensed mental health therapists could help you work through this - especially the ones with specialized training or experience with grief counseling. As could professionals in the veterinary field. Did you know there is such a thing as veterinary social workers? I’m not one of them myself, but I am happy that they exist! Check this out.

I loved a dog named Bailey. It is not accurate for me to use the words “have” or "own" for my pets - because if anybody owns anybody - they own me! It’s the reason my pets are not smarter or bigger than me. The smarter part is somewhat debatable. I have the advantage of opposable thumbs and they don’t. That’s something.

Bailey was possibly a Tibetan Terrier or maybe a Shitzu. A Lhasa-Apsa maybe? We were told she was a cross between a Shitzu and Cocker Spaniel. That never seemed quite right to me.  Whatever the case, she was a princess. She was my faithful companion for 16 years. She died following a short illness.

Bailey came into my life because I had a co-worker who didn’t weigh all the practicalities when she purchased her from a pet store - which was a much more common practice than it is now. My co-worker had a baby, a toddler, and self-diagnosed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

(I wish people wouldn’t use clinical diagnositic terms for things that have not actually been diagnosed by a professional, but it’s very common to do in our culture. Stop it! It’s all relative - just because your relatives think you have a mental health disorder, doesn’t mean you do. You might, but you might not.)

I digress. Bailey. Here name wasn’t Bailey when I learned about her. I found out about her in our weekly classified ads distributed to all employees - gasp - on a piece of paper. I ran over to my co-worker’s cubicle and accosted her with “I call dibs!”

“Don’t you dare let anybody else have this dog until I get a chance to meet her.”

“Pretty please?”

It was the “pretty please” that sealed the deal. I was prepared to add “With cheese on top” but didn’t have to take it that far. I  went over to my co-worker’s house that evening, lifted this squirming bundle of black fur up to make eye contact and asked in a gentle tone of voice that I didn’t even know I possessed  “Do you know who your mama is?” She promptly licked my nose. I decided that she had in fact answered the question, and drove her home in my lap to see if my boyfriend (now my husband) liked her too. He did, and she never left. Kind of like me. He liked me too and I never left.

Bailey came into my life when I was in my mid-20s and died when I was 40 years old. I was a train wreck when she died. I couldn’t even believe that my fur baby was dead.

As happenstance would have it, I was a train wreck who was also in school to become a social worker. As a mental health therapist I would say that I was having difficulty regulating my emotions. (This is called Emotional Regulation.) In this case, it’s a colossal understatement if there ever was one - so let’s stick with train wreck. Bailey died on a Saturday and I was scheduled to have a meeting with my professor the following Monday. By Monday I was in no condition for regular life so I cancelled the meeting and told my professor why.

By Wednesday of that week I was ready to brave the cruel, cold, Bailey-less world again and decided to attend one of my classes. My fellow students and I waited in the classroom for the said-professor who had a habit of being slightly late. I was sitting there minding my own business and silently attempting to will myself functional. (Willing oneself to be functional is not a viable mental health tool, by the way.) The professor walks in, gets himself situated, makes eye contact with me and says “I am so sorry about the loss of you dog.”

What did I do? Did I nod my head subtly and graciously?

Did I say “Thank you.” quietly and demurely?

Did I say “It’s okay, she was just a dog?” (Some people would say that. Don’t forget our conversation from the last blog about disenfranchised grief.)

No. I did none of those things. I promptly burst into hysterical sobs with hiccups and all. So much for regulating my emotions. There was snot running down my face as the other students looked at me in mortified horror and wonder. I was living in New Mexico at the time and all the other students in that room were women who mostly identified ethnically as Mexican because, as they explained it to me, their heritage was Mexican - just right over the border.

Hats off to that professor. He didn’t miss a beat. He simply changed the lesson plan to talk about grief, and how pet death in general is often the most difficult loss to bear as I continued to sob and attempted to more-or-less calm myself. Less than more. But by God, I was paying for this education and I was not going to miss this class.

It was a three-hour class, and during the break that day there was flurry of Spanish among my classmates. I don’t speak Spanish, but because they were all looking at me from time to time, and sometimes pointing, I deduced they were talking about how crazy the only white chick in the room was. I wouldn’t have disagreed in that moment, but that wasn’t it. Well that could have been part of it, but whoever drew the short straw came up to me with no less than three options of puppies or young dogs that they or one of their relatives had that were mine for the taking. That day if I wanted! I didn’t even have to leave the room without a puppy in my arms because there was an offer to arrange to bring a puppy to the classroom! Although I declined the offers on that day, those ladies shall forever remain in my heart. Or should I say “furever”? I was a stranger to them, and they were trying to help. They were trying to fix it.

Grief can’t be fixed.

When we have an acquaintance, friend, or loved one in our lives who is experiencing grief it’s easy to want to focus on solutions. I’ve done it. I do it. A more effective strategy is to focus on listening, acceptance, and support. A little comfort food wouldn’t hurt a thing. What I learned on that day is that grief is not a problem to be solved, but a process to be experienced and that experience is as individual as we are.

I also learned that it’s okay to be kind to myself when experiencing grief and loss. Or anytime really.

It’s okay to be kind to myself.

The world would not have ended if I hadn’t gone to class that day. Possibly I could have maintained a shred of dignity if I hadn’t. If I remember right, I went home and ate a pint of salted caramel ice cream and sobbed some more because I couldn’t share it with Bailey. It didn’t even taste good. I ate it anyway.

And if you'd like to speak to someone and get some guidance and much-needed perspective, please reach out to Kathy Link.

Reach Out