Grief Takes No Holiday
Grieving the death of your pet is difficult any time of the year but it can be more painful in December when everyone else is celebrating. Here are tips for coping during this stressful season because grief takes no holiday.
Again at Christmas did we weave
The holly round the Christmas hearth;
The silent snow possess'd the earth,
And calmly fell our Christmas-eve:
The yule-log sparkled keen with frost,
No wing of wind the region swept,
But over all things brooding slept
The quiet sense of something lost.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
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Some visitors will read this article and ask: Is she really comparing pet loss to human loss? The answer is NO, I am not comparing anything because grief comparisons do not help and often hurt.
The pain of pet loss grief can be minimized or not recognized at all by those who do not understand how strong the attachment to a companion animal can be. If you start to question how deeply you are grieving the death of your pet, please remember the words below. They come from On Grief and Grieving by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler and appear on page 30. I have adapted it for pet loss:
When you compare losses, someone else’s may seem greater or lesser than your own, but all losses are painful...Losses are very personal and comparisons never apply. No loss counts more than another. It is your loss that counts for you. It is your loss that affects you.
Your loss is deep and deserves your personal attention without comparison. You are the only one who can survey the magnitude of your loss. No one will ever know the meaning of what was shared, the deepness of the void that shadows your future. You alone know your loss...
...Your task in your own mourning and grieving is to fully recognize your own loss, to see it as only you can. In paying the respect and taking the time it deserves, you bring integrity to the deep loss that is yours.
Grief Takes No Holiday
The Christmas season is not an easy time to do the work of remembering and feeling sad when everyone around you is merrymaking. But you need to grieve your loss anyway and not worry about what anyone else thinks. There is no right and wrong way to celebrate the holidays, or not, after your beloved pet has died.
The holiday blues are a normal part of grief. Unspoken gloom hovers over your attempts to celebrate. When this happens, it is helpful to pause your activities, embrace your loved ones and reflect on what you have lost. Acknowledge the heartache because grief takes no holiday. (Harvard Women’s Health Watch 2002)
Responding to loss with sorrow is evidence of your humanity. Grief is an expression of your love for the one who has died, and it deserves as much respect as joy and happiness. By expressing your sadness, your love, you have a chance at finding new and unexpected tenderness in the season of hope.
12 Tips for Coping with Holiday Pet Loss Grief
Every loss is different. If your pet died during a past holiday season, you may always feel sadness at this time of year. Perhaps your pet died earlier this year and you are facing the first holiday season without your cherished companion. Sometimes the dread of the holiday is worse than the season itself. You could feel responsible in some way for your pet’s death which will intensify your grief feelings. New loss may bring back memories of old losses. Only you can assign meaning to your deep loss.
After a while you may learn that the cherished holiday memory of your pet, once so painful, now eases the sharp edges of grief and spreads its arms to comfort you--but you are not there yet. Here are a few suggestions for getting through the holiday season that have helped me, but please remember there is no right and wrong way. Grief just is.
1.Cry if you want to cry. Your tears are the outward expression of the pain, sadness--and love--that you have inside. Tears may come when least expected or they may flow a lot. In Roman times, tears were captured in small vials and treasured. Now they end up in a wadded tissue at the bottom of a wastebasket.
Most people are uncomfortable with crying and will scurry for the tissue box at the first sign of trouble. They may interrupt you with a "there, there" which translates into Stop Crying Now!
Tears are part of the language of your deep loss. It takes courage to be vulnerable. You take time out for coffee and a quick bite. You can also be kind to yourself and take the time out to cry. Remember: If your tears bother others, it is their problem, not yours. You can be polite, or not; but wave them away and cry if you want to without apology.
2. Say your pet’s name out loud and stop the generic use of pronouns. Soon after a pet dies, family and friends start saying, "he died or she died" rather than "Sammy died, or Rosie died." A strange conspiracy of silence looms that suggests whatever you do, do not speak of the dead. Out of sight, out of mind.
As a griever, you have every right to challenge the use of impersonal pronouns. Your pet had a name that you treasure. Deliberately say it: Ellie loved to romp in the snow, or Murray made a game of toppling my Elf on the Shelf. The free use of your pet’s name will encourage others to use it as well. As an unexpected bonus, you will be setting an example that others will remember when their turn to grieve comes.
3. Do not let the holidays overtake you. Plan how you want to spend the actual day. Whatever you decide, let your family know in advance of your plans. See the next entry.
4. Expect criticism. Or at least raised eyebrows and editorial comments. It is possible that not all family members will be supportive of your grief style. They may think you are being ridiculous or selfish for grieving “just” a dog or cat. Others may be angry, or outraged, because you are grieving for a pet while someone else is grieving human loss. See Comparing Grief.
Keep in mind that each family member will grieve differently because everyone had a unique relationship with the deceased pet. Maybe you want to stay home or change how the family does things this year. Something is bound to confuse, annoy, or anger a family member or someone in your extended social network.
Perhaps your friends do not have pets, or have not yet lost beloved pets. Criticism is often based on ignorance or lack of perspective. As difficult as it might be, the best thing to do is ignore the criticism and do what you need to do to take care of you.
5. Do not overextend yourself. Say ‘No’ if you need to say no. You do not have to shop, bake, decorate, send cards, go to parties, or entertain, if you are not up to it. Observe your own quiet holiday. On this first Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year's Eve without your pet, give yourself permission to take a break from all the fuss and use the time to grieve. Believe this in your heart: You do not owe anyone a reason for your grief or an explanation of your grieving style.
6. Think about the upcoming religious services. Will the sacred music and camaraderie of the season comfort or upset you? What do you believe will be the overall emotional effect if everyone around you seems happy? If you want to attend, sit in the back so that you can leave quietly, if needed. Decide how much or how little you want to participate this first December after loss.
7. Contemplate the holiday invitations. "I cannot do this" may be on your lips a lot this month. Are the people who issued the invitation good friends or casual acquaintances? What is the tone or tenor of the party? Will it be quiet or raucous? Is it an intimate get-together or filled with people you barely know? If you decide to attend, drop-in events may be easier: you are free to arrive late and leave early. You may be too sad right now for any parties and that is OK, too.
Consider the possibility that no one is expecting you to be the life of the party, but they are letting you know that you are welcome to attend. More than once grievers have decided to attend a social function and had a moment of unexpected tenderness from someone's kind remark or gesture of friendship. You never know where comfort resides.
8. Include memories of your pet in your holiday tradition this year. For example, you can hang a photo frame ornament of your pet on the tree or set a lighted candle beside a framed picture. Each family member can share favorite moments with their animal friend.
Donate in your pet’s memory to an animal shelter, veterinarian’s hospital or organization that researches the illness that took your pet’s life.
There are many ways to include the spirit and memory of your pet in the holiday season. Ask your children for ideas. They may amaze you with their creativity.
9. Reflect on your annual holiday traditions. Sometimes your yearly traditions are comforting after a death and sometimes they are not. Will the shiny ornaments comfort you or remind you of how much your cat liked to swat them off the tree? Will a holiday gathering at home bring back memories of how excited your dog was to have guests, or will the silence be deafening because there are no paws clicking on the floor?
Perhaps you always have a home-cooked family dinner, but you do not have the energy for planning and preparation now. This year you can make reservations to have Christmas dinner at a restaurant. The essence of the tradition, a family gathering, is still there, but the setting has changed.
Traditions can be stored, recycled, or trashed. Give yourself permission to at least ask: What if we did (blank) this year? Next year you can decide again.
10. Consider charitable giving. It is common in grief to lack the energy or desire to shop. If this is true for you, but you would still like to give something to others, consider charitable giving. With so many charities to choose from, both home and abroad, there is sure to be an appropriate charity for everyone on your gift list. You can ask your friends and family to do the same for you or, in lieu of gifts, have them donate to your favorite animal charity in your pet’s name. CharityNavigator.org helps you find charities that you can trust.
11. Take the time to nurture yourself. Have you been so busy helping other family members grieve that you have ignored your own needs? Or, have you been working overtime to avoid an empty house? Whatever your circumstances, you may be compromising your own health through neglect. Whether it is enjoying a long hot soak, turning off the cell phone to read a book, or going for a walk, please take the time to nurture yourself. Simple relaxation techniques, healthful foods and enough sleep are good places to begin.
There is much we do not know about the mind-body-spirit connection, but one thing is certain: we are at greater risk for accident, injury, infection, and disease after suffering a loss. Please seek expert advice if you are having troublesome symptoms.
12. Let happiness in. After your pet dies, you do not have to be sad 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Joy in no way diminishes your grief. In fact, it is healing to feel joy and smile when you think of your pet. Acknowledge the good times. Your treasure-trove of happy memories celebrates and validates how much you loved your dear companion.
Christmastime is often a season of high expectations followed by profound disappointments. The syndicated advice columnist Carolyn Hax writes, “Happiness equals reality minus expectations.” Try not to expect too much of yourself, or others, during this sad holiday period.
Our time together on earth with our loved ones is short. Let happiness in—minus the expectations—by allowing yourself to enjoy simple holiday moments with your friends, family and surviving pets. It will comfort your grieving heart.
During the first Christmas season after Merlin died, I opened a box of decorations and found his golden fur all over the red felt material that I used to cover the base of the tree. I cried like his death was yesterday and it caught me completely off guard.
You could be in a store and see your pet’s favorite toy or find her fur inside a box of decorations. Serving holiday food can remind you of your pet asking for special treats, or the first snowfall brings back memories of how much your dog loved to play in the snow.
Sudden small reminders of your pet, and large ones, too, can overwhelm you at this festive time of year. You thought you were doing better, but here you are, crying as though your loss just happened. If the death was recent, you almost expect the intensity of new grief. If it was a while ago, you are surprised by the force of these powerful emotions.
This unexpected shadow of grief is called a grief burst. Grief bursts are normal and can occur for many years after your pet’s death, even throughout your lifetime. Unlike fresh grief, they are usually transient in nature.
The heart must have its time of snow…
to rest in silence and then to grow.
Pet Loss Grief and the New Year: What Now?
You are relieved that the season is almost over because you no longer feel pressured to make merry. As much as you may have dreaded the holidays without your beloved pet, the aftermath of the season can intensify the sadness. Perhaps all the festivities kept your mind off of your pet's death but now that they are over, the reality of permanent loss can no longer be avoided.
You are about to enter another year without the physical presence of your pet and Christmas does not mend a broken heart. What do you do with your grief now?
The razor’s edge of grief, so sharp at Christmastime, will give way to the ache of permanent loss. There will be an ebb and flow to the pain. Some days you may be overwhelmed and on other days, happy memories of your pet will make you smile. I call these emotional fluctuations the hard edge and soft edge of grief.*
Even though we may feel that the hard edge of grief will never end, mindful practices such as mediation and yoga can teach us that life is ever-changing. When we realize that the only constant in life is change, we become aware of the small changes in ourselves and dare to hope that the soft edge of healing is possible.
This healing does not occur by moving on from the loss, but by moving forward with our lives, keeping the memories of our cherished companion intact. We learn that while suffering passes, love remains.
You will read many grief articles that include the advice to practice gratitude. When my grief was new, even the mention of gratitude bothered me because I was not grateful my pet had died. I certainly was not thankful for the raw feelings of fresh grief.
I know now that the advice to practice gratitude did not mean that I should be grateful for my pet's death, but that is how it felt to me at the time. Telling me to "be grateful" after loss did not acknowledge my immediate pain. Today I have a better understanding of what it means to be grateful. I used to take small comforts for granted. Because of loss, I do not take anything for granted anymore.
If you think about it, there are probably aspects of your life that are still good after the death of your pet. Can you name one or two? Friends? Family? Other pets? Your health? A stable job? Recognizing the remaining goodness does not lessen your grief, or bring your beloved pet back, but it can open the door to healing.
If feeling better, or being grateful, does not seem possible right now, you can start small by recognizing the little things that comfort you. They could include anything: the contented purr or sweet woof of your surviving pets, a book of hope and healing, twinkling stars on a clear moonlit night, the aroma of fresh brewed coffee in the morning, a hug from your child or good friend, or a heartfelt email from someone who cares about you.
You had a pet who brought you joy. Allow your time together to comfort you as you carry memories of your pet into the life you create after loss. As Thornton Wilder wrote: "The highest tribute to the dead is not grief but gratitude."
We can never replace a beloved companion and getting another pet is a personal decision. When, if ever, is it time to adopt? Is there room in your heart this year for new love to grow? Go to Adopting a New Pet After Loss to read more.
I wish you unexpected comfort through all the seasons of your grief.
*The original concept of hard edge / soft edge refers to physical pain and comes from the book Mindfulness for Health by Vidyamala Burch and Danny Penman, pages 107-108. I have adapted it to the changing nature of grief.
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