This is the first in a series of articles I am writing on Loss. Loss is an integral part of our lives and loss can be of anything, physical, emotional, financial, career, or death. But all loss is followed by grief, it is what I call the “Loss-Grief-Learn cycle“. We all hate the learn part, don’t we? why can’t learning be with something happier? Why does true learning only happen when we go through a crisis? Every loss I believe peels away layers of our psyche forcing us to face the rawness beneath and thus evolve. I am not going to romanticize learning here, or make it sound godly, I just want to share my perspective on how organic it can be.
Loss of a pet is one of the worst losses and not to be compared with other losses. I recently lost my dog of 17 years last September, he was old, in a lot of pain and had been suffering for over a year due to old age. Even then the loss was unbearable. You will not see my family or me wailing and crying or depressed as life needs to go on, but the internal devastation is just that a devastation. I will be mentioning dog here as that is how I relate to this loss, but please consider this for any pet animal (cats, birds, rabbits, fishes anything).
Once you have known the love of a dog, nothing else will compare. Pooja Damle
For all those who have never experienced any personal connection with an animal, please stop trying to understand this loss. You cannot understand it and it is ok, I will be sharing a few do’s and don’ts if you are trying to console a friend who is experiencing this loss. Trust me, even if you consider yourself an animal lover, if you have not connected with an animal on a personal day-to-day basis, it is difficult to understand this loss.
So here goes to all the non-animal people:
DO NOT under any circumstances say, “Why don’t you get another dog?” It is cruel and hurtful.
DO NOT make it a competition of grief. Let me share an example, we had decided to cremate my dog in an electric crematorium, and I was naïve enough to share my painful experience with a co-worker. I was describing the pain I felt watching my dog’s body move into the cremation machine, I had just finished this sentence, when he asked me “Have you watched a human body being cremated, it is worse?”. This well-meaning person had invalidated my grief in one sentence. I smiled and move away.
Loss of a human being and loss of an animal are very different, none is superior to the other and comparing the levels of grief is illogical and insensitive. Stop drawing stupid parallels, practice compassionate listening. You need not understand, at least listen quietly and nod, that is more than enough.
Coming now to the pet owners:
STOP sharing your feelings or grief with people who do not get it, the one’s mentioned above.
FIND other pet owners who have suffered this loss, even strangers can provide you more emotional support that friends who are well meaning but don’t get it.
JOIN online support groups, create one if you have none, watch videos and read blogs that will make you feel that you are not alone. While other people may be forcing you to move on quickly, take your time.
DO not rush out and buy another pet, give yourself time and permission to grieve
Take days off work if you need to, allow yourself to grieve
DO NOT expect anyone else to understand or respect your loss.
Give away toys, food bowls and leashes immediately, keep one thing as a remembrance. I have kept his collar, looking at his empty food bowl was too crushing, I gave away everything to a dog shelter the very next day.
Have your own mourning ceremony, invite people who will empathize, or just do it for yourself/family. We went to a nearby town called Srirangapatna, and immersed his ashes in the holy Cauvery river, it was a beautiful day.
If it is too painful to look at the pictures, remove all pictures for a while, you can hang a photo of your pet when you are ready.
If you had to make the tough decision to let them go, forgive yourself, you did this to end their suffering, you were the only one who understood the physical pain and suffering your dog was going through. Trust me dogs hang on for their humans, even when they are suffering and if your doctor agrees, letting them go will be the most soul crushing decision but the right one, and you will survive it.
My dog was connected to me on a psychic plane, he gave me unconditional love till his last day. I do not remember a single day he was in a bad mood. In his last days/months, he had hip displacement, painful arthritis, cataract in both eyes, mild but progressing dementia and he would have peeing episodes within the house as he was losing bladder control, that dog was on so many medicines, his tooth were also decaying, but he never missed to wag his tail and lick my face when I came back home from office. Dogs cannot pretend, they only know to give love. He was ok with me more than I was accepting of myself, in his eyes I was perfect. Did not matter what I wore, if I showered or no, if I had make-up on or no, if I was a good person or a serial killer, nothing would have mattered to him. Imagine experiencing this kind of love.
I look back at sweet memories, he would love getting the first serving of the prasad or food offering to god after prayers. He would sit patiently next to the alter, waiting for the prayers to end and for him to get his share. He would make us laugh and giggle by being silly. I miss waking up and saying, “Good Morning Rishi” or checking on him before bed “Good night mani mau”. At times I still ask mom, as soon as I wake up, where is Rishi? He loved listening to me chanting mantras, no matter where he was inside the house, he would come and sit next to me the moment I started to chant Sri Lalithasahasranam, this takes 30-40 mins and he would not budge till the end. He attended all our rituals and havans/fire obligations at home.
He was aware of a lot more than we knew, when he was younger, his ears would stand straight upon hearing ice cream or biscuits, at times we had to spell these to avoid him hearing ha ha. He was a 35 kg, double coat, long & tall male German shepherd, but a gentle giant. Anyone who met him even once fell in love with him, right from the neighbors, their kids, his doctor, our maid just everyone. Last few years of his life, we celebrated his birthday with small parties, he would enjoy eating his cake and watching the kids dance.
Out of all losses in my life till now, nothing shook my core like this one. We knew his time was near, we knew his pain was unbearable, and he is now free from his physical suffering, but no matter how much you try you are never prepared enough. This loss ripped out the remaining paper off my psyche, life will never be the same nor will I. This is not a statement from a depressed or hopeless place, rather a fact of my new reality.
Animals feel loss too:
I think animals handle loss much better than us, because they are wired to live in the now. We see so many videos of dogs/cats/horses mourning the death of their human owners, or how the wild elephant herd mourns the death of a member. So, we know that they do grieve, they feel the loss and they express it as well. But how do they cope with it? They do not have a glass of wine or visit a therapist or go on a shopping spree or join the most expensive gym. How do they get over the grief?
After my dog passed away, I started feeding the stray cats in my neighborhood. There was a mother cat, who had two adorable white & black kittens. I named them Hansel & Gretel, though both are males. They would come everyday morning and evening and meow out loudly to ask for food. Then they would hang around for sometime and leave. Both grew into handsome male cats, but their brotherly bond was endearing. I would often find them laying close to each other in the afternoon sun.
The more white cat is Hansel and the one on top is Gretel
One of the brothers, the bigger stronger one,Hansel , suddenly disappeared. Feral cats move around, and we cannot track them, but we went searching for him and he was never found. He either ran away and got lost or was killed in an accident, we will never know. The other cat mourned him for days, he would sit outside my door and cry and refused to eat. He became so thin, and sad, all he wanted was someone to comfort him. I would sit with him and talk to him and pet him, but he was in deep distress. There was nothing else I could do for him. Slowly as the weeks past, he bounced back, started eating, and putting on weight. Now I see a more confident cat, who loves chasing squirrels and birds and still visits me everyday for food and petting. I wish I could have a conversation with this cat over a bowl of milk, ask him what he did to process his grief? Does he still remember his brother or did the angels wipe out his memory? Or he just prefers to stay in the present?
We brought our dog home when he was just 35 days old and the cutest puppy I have ever seen till now. He stayed with us for as long as he could, maybe he is up there waiting for me to join him, I would go were all dogs go after they die, that would definitely be heaven.
Hope you find some comfort in the write-up, whether it was a recent loss or years ago, please share your stories and experiences with your pets, I would love to read.Leaving you with the image of the cutest puppy I bet you will ever see.
Rishi at 35 days old, December 2003