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Mourning a Pet at the Holidays

The Reverend Kaleel Sakakeeny (aka Brenda’s big cousin) is one of the country’s few ordained Animal Chaplains, non-denominational Pastoral Counselors and Credentialed Pet Loss and Grief Counselors. His work in the field of loss and grief, especially pet loss and grief, has earned him global recognition. We asked him about how people can cope with their loss of a pet as the holidays begin…

When we’ve lost someone we love, our world changes. Reality shifts. We are not who we were before their death.

When we lose our beloved pet (our beloved anyone) the house in which we live is not the same house. There is no dog frolicking under the tree making crazy circles. There is no cat batting ornaments and playing with ribbons. Our eyes and thoughts are downcast or lost in the middle distance. The Christmas tree, Hanuka candles, lighted windows and shared meals are not as we remember them before they died.

This is true for all of us who have loved and lost, and achingly so during the holiday season with its good cheer and happy spirits. The bitter sweetness of the season can be overwhelming. Our grief and pain exile us. Our minds drift and we can’t focus. We are ambushed by tears, and then we feel guilt, which makes it all worse.

How Can We Be Present?

How can we be present with the people we love and the joy of the colors and the laughter? Well, don’t try.

You have the right to not attend any celebration you don’t feel up to. But that’s not always the best thing to do. You might need a touch of those lights and laughter. But trying to fit in, is to make it worse; pushing your natural feelings away never works.

Accept that the old normal is gone. You’re living in a new normal. Accept that you are a different you. And that’s okay. It’s exactly as it should be.

No need to explain or make excuses for your feelings. Take the time to be alone. For now, solitude is healing. Light a candle in front of a photo of your loved one. Talk to him or her in the quiet of your own space. Explain how difficult it is, and let each other know how much you miss each other.

Journaling is a huge help. Writing your feelings externalizes them and softens the pain.

Cry as long and as deeply as you need to. But take grief breaks and join the festivities if only for a little bit at a time. A hug here. A song there. A toast perhaps. Then allow yourself to step back into the privacy of your feelings.

Get outside. Walking helps tremendously. It’s a wonderful pain reliever, and the sharpness and quiet of the fresh air give you space you need.

Think also of spending a few hours volunteering at an animal shelter. Honor your pet’s memory by talking with abandoned animals and bring something special for the staff. Visit a senior home. Your heart is so open now. Ironically, your ache opens you to the needs of others, and seniors who have lost so much in life will love your presence. Listen to their stories.

Yes, it’s painful to recall the joyful presence of your pet from past holidays. But remember, the death did not end the love or relationship. Feel what you feel but take care of yourself. Stay hydrated. Remember your grief breaks and don’t try to be brave. You’re loved by family and friends and they get it. Even if not everyone gets it, some do.

At the end of the season, if you have a live Christmas tree, plant it outside.

The pain does soften with time, but it never goes away. If you need help, reach out to a grief counselor and stay connected to loving and understanding friends and family. Let yourself hope for a future with love and acceptance.

Listen to the Poet

The poetry of John O’Donohue, who died all too young, always has something to tell us about love and life. In his beautiful poem “The Grief,” he tells us that in time, “we will be able to enter the hearth of our soul where our loved one has awaited our return all the time.”

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