On Wednesday, January 31, we had to euthanize our dog Abe. The date lies exactly six days after the anniversary of my husband's mother's death (1/25), and six days before the anniversary of my father's death (2/6). The winter metaphor is not figurative in our house.
I took this photo the morning he was euthanized.
This all happened fairly suddenly. A week after we learned that he had kidney issues, he was gone. He was just nine years old and still so puppyish that I always assumed he'd live forever.
Never one to pass up a chance to enjoy the warmth of the sun.
I now know that I can use the deaths of people's pets and grandparents as good markers for where I am with my grief. It took me until about 2008 (four years after my dad's death) to have sympathy for friends/family who experienced those types of loses. In the early years, I became consumed with comparing grief experiences. I was angry that it seemed as if I were the only one who was hurting, and if anyone did experience loss, I was quick to point out why mine was worse. But nothing could make me quite as mad as a grieving pet owner. My motto being that one should be so lucky to be sad because of the death of a pet, and if people were sad beyond what I considered acceptable, I was insulted. My dad had died, how could this person be crying over a cat or a grandparent? No one lives forever.
Speaking of cats...we have one of those too. Another pet death awaits me...
After many years of pain and anger, I felt a huge release when I finally stopped judging people for their grief. It happened slowly over time and can't be attributed to any one change that I made for myself. I don't think it was even conscious. But excusing myself from obsessing over a friend's dead dog or grandfather was liberating. It also allowed me to be more sympathetic and kind instead of reclusive and bitter. I don't know what enabled me to make the switch. It was likely a combination of myself feeling better over time, and also that people in my social circle began experiencing the type of loss that I had and I felt less alone.
I realized that people feel pain - for whatever the reason - and we should honor and acknowledge their pain Only once there was enough separation from my dad's death could I come accept this. Grief and pain are relative. Each experience is different. It's never the same for two people even if they're experiencing the same type of loss. It doesn't help to try to compare.
Shout out to the White Mountains for being one of the only places that could make Abe tired!
Soon after my sister died I joined a Facebook group for people who had lost siblings. Scanning through the posts I noticed that twinless twins seemed to be getting more compassion than the rest of us. Particularly identical twins. My heart feels for any sibling who has experienced the death of a sister or brother and I was really ticked that members assumed that a twin would hurt more than the rest of us. I was on the receiving end of grief judgment and I didn't like it.
The safest frame of mind when it comes to grief is to not rank pain. There are no bonus points here if you lost a father over a stepfather, or a niece over a sister. Acknowledge and accept another's grief, regardless for whom the person is grieving.
But it is so hard to do.
Right now I'm failing at this. I'm just about to hit the six-month mark from my sister's death, and I find myself back to the place I used to be - judging those around me and generally feeling both apathetic and angry. Terrible news stories on the radio barely make me raise my eyebrows. Sad stories are heard and understand, but I have no feelings. Intellectually I understand other's grief and sadness, but I'm unable to make an emotional connection. I know that I won't be in this mind space forever, and I am trying to acknowledge it for what it is. My sister died not so long ago - and I'm going to feel angry about it for a while. I'm angry that this has happened to her. I'm angry that this has happened to us again. Once I stop comparing someone else's pain to my own, it will be the evidence that I am closer to accepting my sister's death.
I was surprised at the sharpness of pain that I felt when Abe died. His death is small potatoes to the loss of my sister. Despite this, I couldn't go to the vet to euthanize him (my husband did that alone). The following day I started weeping in the street on my way to the library and had to turn around and rush home. It was only a couple of months ago that I took it upon myself to write to a blogger I admire who wrote an entry about her elderly dog that had passed away. My comment was something like, "You're lucky - I wish this was my pain." She replied with kindness and I felt ashamed for judging how her family felt about their dog's death. She was hurting, and I am now hurting about Abe.
Pain is relative. Sadness is relative. I cannot assume that I know how another person is feeling with their losses, even if they too have lost a father or a sister. Relationships are all unique and so the end of those relationships is also unique
When you turn to comfort a friend or family member, acknowledge their pain, ask questions and listen - don't tell them what they're feeling or what they can do to make it better (which can be really easy to do when you are trying to be helpful). The Grief Recovery Workbook goes over this in detail and how ingrained it is in our culture to offer advice instead of to listen.
If you know someone who has recently lost a pet - even if you think that this type of loss doesn't warrant support - reach out - they will appreciate an acknowledgment of their pain.
Abe enjoying the freedom of the woods with my nephew in December.
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@Daniel – thank you for taking the time to leave a comment, it is clear to me that your pets are very important to you and are/have been well-loved.
My message lines up with what you’re saying…that we shouldn’t judge anyone else’s grief regardless if it’s for a person or an animal. While I indicated that my dog’s death was not as impactful as my sister’s (or my dad’s death prior), I’m not saying that I expect anyone else to feel the same way I do.
I don’t have a problem if someone else loves their pet more than their family members. I have never felt that way, but I can understand why someone else would.
While it’s helpful not to be judgemental, as it’s a waste of mental time and never puts anyone in a better place, judging other’s people’s grief is a very common reaction when people have recently lost someone important. I admit that I do judge grief, even though I know I shouldn’t. It’s a sign that my grief for my sister is still raw.
I believe that you didn’t read this whole essay, since the whole point is how unhelpful it is to judge grief. Your comment indicates that you believe that I am minimizing your grief, and in return, you are clearly judging mine. I am sure you feel the pain for your pets deaths deeply or perhaps are already worried about how hard it will be after they’re gone. I’m not here to compare your loss to anyone else’s, and I would appreciate the same respect.
The fact that this writer would even consider resentment for someone losing a pet or loved one is astounding. Humans rarely care about anyone unconditionally and my pets do so even when we dont. If my parents were to die tomorrow, I would still not grieve to the extent that I have for my dead pets. It just shows how weak the human mind is to consider death as anything less than a humans death. I will mourn my pets loss much more than you will mourn your parents loss and I could care less how much you resent that.