While it is becoming increasingly common for LGBTQ couples (and singles) to have actual human children as opposed to just furry ones, it is no less true that, both historically and presently, we queers love our animals as if they are our children. They are our children. The singular problem with this is that no parent should have to mourn the loss of a child. As pet moms and dads, though, we have no choice. If we’re lucky, we get 10 or 15 years with our babies and then we are forced to say goodbye. Even though we know to expect it, this knowledge does nothing to ease the pain when the time comes.
In having lost a pet of my own recently, as well as witnessing several community members dealing with similar losses, it begged the question: How best to mourn a pet? While, like most other matters pertaining to psychological and emotional health, there is no one-size-fits-all method for coping with losing a beloved pet, there are some ways to aid the process.
First, and perhaps most importantly, we must not deny ourselves the right to mourn for as long as we need to. There often seems to be a standard that people should quickly move past the loss of a pet or that it isn’t appropriate to grieve that loss the way we would the loss of a person. But the truth is that the unconditional love given by a cat or a dog, as well as the constant companionship they provide, is more than most humans can give us. Adjusting to the absence of that love and companionship takes time and no societal pressure or norm can change that. If it’s been a couple of months since your pet passed away and you still need to have a good cry about it every couple of days, then you should have that cry. If it’s been a year and you find yourself still missing your departed pet, you should allow yourself that emotional experience. To truly heal, we must allow for all of our feelings to be felt, no matter what the timeline.
Another valuable way to honor and facilitate the grieving process is to engage in a ritual of sorts to honor the life of your pet and your unique relationship. When people die, we have funerals. Why not have a service to acknowledge the life and death of your animal? The reason we have funerals for people is primarily to assist the living in honoring and grieving their loss. The same can be true when it comes to your pet; it might just need to look a little bit different. Gather together your loved ones — human, canine and feline alike — and have a service at your home or someplace your pet loved to go (the dog park, perhaps?). Ritualistic behaviors during times of grief are immensely cathartic and no one should be denied that catharsis simply because the loss is of an animal instead of a person.
Similarly, memorializing your pet is an incredible way to find comfort. For example, in your home, you may want to display a favorite photo of you and your pet alongside their collar and perhaps their ashes. For some people, especially earlier in the grieving process, the daily physical reminder might be too hard and that’s OK too. These days, there are all sorts of options for memorializing your beloved pet that a quick Google search will reveal. Things like planting a tree in their honor, photo books and creating art or a gemstone that includes your pet’s ashes are a few examples. Find what feels right for you and do it — even if it’s a bit of an expense. Keep with the theme that you deserve to mourn fully.
Lastly, while I do recommend getting a new animal somewhere after the 30-60-day mark — so as not to get stuck in your grief and because every animal offers us something uniquely their own, which can offer great comfort — if it doesn’t feel right or if it feels too soon, trust and honor your feelings. Again, there is no timeline for this except your own.
For all of you mourning a pet, take good care and be kind to yourself. For those of you with pets that are alive and well, appreciate them every single day. Pets are truly one of life’s best blessings.
Kristina Furia is a psychotherapist committed to working with LGBT individuals and couples and owner of Emerge Wellness, an LGBT health and wellness center in Center City (www.emergewellnessphilly.com).
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