A week before I wrote this post I had to have Tarquin, our last remaining rooster put to sleep. I’ve been in this position many a time and I know the score, that our pets don’t last forever. Chickens in particular, can die quite mysteriously. I have lost them suddenly with no warning (sudden death syndrome), lost them after weeks of nursing and willing them to pull through (I find this quite really upsetting), and had to make the difficult decision to euthanise on several occasions. As it is usual practise to buy hens of the same age in pairs at the very least, if you are lucky enough to avoid illnesses, you can expect to lose them due to old age around the same time.
So yes, I have experienced a lot of pet deaths. I should be good at this by now. But why does it feel so bad?
My day job is a trainer for a pet bereavement helpline with a well known pet charity. Knowing about grief and how it affects us does not take away the pain of a loss, but it can certainly help put things into perspective.
Grief is our reaction to a loss. The more we value what we have lost the greater the pain. Grief is not limited to human and pet loss; we can form attachments to material objects and feel emotional from losing a wedding ring for example. Repossession of a house is also upsetting, as is losing a job. Breakdown of a relationship also brings out the same grief emotions. Even when there is no death involved, there is still a loss.
So it is a compliment to your pet if you are upset when they are gone. Grief only happens if you have loved; if you didn’t care, then grief wouldn’t exist. Pet owners go through this painful process after any type of pet loss which is not limited to death but also includes rehoming, enforced separation, straying and theft. The diagnosis of terminal illness is also upsetting and grieving starts while the animal is still alive. This is known as anticipatory grief, a very worrying time for the owner. My earlier blogs about my cat, Phoebe, documents our emotional journey when she was diagnosed with lymphoma.
As if loss/future loss of a pet isn’t hard enough, pet owners often find that their sadness isn’t recognised and end up having to hide their feelings to avoid ridicule. And even if you have good friends and family around, they will instinctively want to make you better. When you are bereaved, though, you can’t be ‘fixed’ over a cup of coffee, or with a holiday. It’s a process which takes time and various stages of emotions, and everyone’s way of dealing with this is entirely individual.
The closer the relationship to your pet, the more it will hurt in the end, and the longer the grieving process. Although I am fond of my outdoor birds, their lives outside means I don’t spend as much time with them as my cats, who sleep with me at night and are often on my lap during the day. The birds potter around in the garden pleasing themselves, whereas the cats will demand my attention and interact with me more. If I’m lucky, a hen will live with me for 5 years or thereabouts, while cats have longer lifespans. Naturally, losing my cats will floor me. But as I have found, each time I lose a chicken, I still get upset – it’s just that I am able to reach the acceptance stage quicker.
The more you have going on in your life, the more you can cope with bereavement. We will go through various bereavements in the course of our lives, but its no coincidence that a retired person living on their own with a limited social circle will find grief harder to cope with compared to a person with a busy family and full time job.
Unfortunately, there is no easy way around grief; we just need to process the information in our own time and gradually readjust again. Allow yourself to grieve and be sad – that is your right. Be kind to yourself and take time out. These days, there are a lot of pressures in society to motor on regardless, but there is a lot to be said for taking care of our own mental and emotional health. Talking about your loss to someone compassionate and non-judgemental can be cathartic and will help offload some of the burden. The Blue Cross operates the Pet Bereavement Support Service which is a free helpline open every day 8.30am-8.30pm. The number is 0800 096 6606. Alternatively, there is an email service on firstname.lastname@example.org