I spoke on the topic of “Adopting Again After Loss” at the 2016 Pet Memorial Sunday ceremony hosted by Chartiers Custom Pet Cremation. This is the transcript of my presentation.
Twenty-two years ago I painted a portrait of a petite black cat resting on pillows on a wicker chair. Samantha’s owner had rescued and adopted and lived with a family of cats all her life, but Samantha was her only cat at that time. After Samantha passed following a long treatment for renal failure, though she volunteered at a shelter and met and considered many cats to adopt, to this day she has never adopted again. She is happy with the memories of all the cats she’s loved, especially Samantha, and still helping cats by volunteering.
Another friend recently lost an elderly member of her dog family, but Trixie’s loss was sudden and unexpected, and painful in a way that’s particular to an unexpected loss. Though seeing any dog reminded her of her loss, she went to the Humane Society the next day and adopted an older dog who had been surrendered because she had a list of old dog issues. Within weeks Belle was in better health and integrated with her canine family. She doesn’t replace Trixie by any means, but rescuing a dog helped ease her grief, and caring for another elderly dog helped ease the suddenness of Trixie’s loss, especially when she responded so well.
Just as grieving a loss is different for each of us, and different for each loss, so is the decision to add another animal to our lives after a loss. The first thing you might say is that you never want to suffer that pain again, and it’s just inconceivable that you’d adopt ever again in your life. Of course, in time, you let go of that fear of pain because with 150 million or more pets in American homes right now it’s clear that we do adopt again, and again, and again.
Whether or not you have other pets in your home, sometimes the pain of grief is so intense the thought of another animal companion is actually upsetting, and yet sometimes the need to fill your arms again and hold an animal close is so strong it’s all you can think about. No decision is right or wrong in itself, and only you and your family know for certain.
Adopting a new animal companion at any time is not a small decision. You’re making a lifetime commitment to love and shelter and care for the new companion, and so you hope your choice whether or not to adopt, and the animal you choose, is the right one, and right for all involved, both human and animal family members.
But when your emotions are in such turmoil, how can you know for sure? One way, even though it may seem even more painful, is to put yourself in the presence of a number of animals in different situations, which not only gives you choices but helps to temper your reactions. And when one of the strongest pieces of advice in managing your grief is to find people who understand your grief at the loss of a beloved pet and stay away from people who don’t, deciding to look for a pet puts you right into a sympathetic audience with other pet lovers, most of whom have no doubt been in the same position as you.
- One way you can start is to not even consider adopting, but to help animals in some way, volunteer with a shelter or rescue for pets, or even for wildlife or farmed animals in a sanctuary for instance.
- Contact your shelter about walking dogs or playing with cats in their care, because those animals can never get too much attention from people, and generally they are even more adoptable, and adoptions are more successful, the more attention they get.
- Offer to foster for a rescue or shelter so you can bring an animal into your home and get to know the animal without the pressure of keeping them forever because the shelter or rescue, and possibly even you, are looking for a home for the animal.
If you want to start looking for a pet, sometimes a shelter is too intense, too many animals and people and public enough it may be intimidating or frightening, so instead you could start on the internet where you can look at pictures all day long on shelter and rescue websites and sites like PetFinder, in the privacy of your own home. You can then follow through with meeting one or more of the animals who caught your eye.
You can also look into a local rescue, which is usually smaller and more private and often without a shelter at all but using a series of foster homes for the animals in their care. This way you get to meet animals face to face, but in a more private setting, and may be able to interact more naturally because of it.
Shelters and rescues also have adoption cages and adoption events at local pet stores, and if you’ve been shopping for pet supplies at a particular store, and may be shopping for other pets in your care, you might feel just as comfortable in a place that’s familiar where you may even know the staff. Of course, visiting places that remind you of your pets may be painful as well, so be sure you are ready to face some memories too.
And just as with any other adoption, make sure you ask yourself what you expect from this adoption, and when you find a pet who catches your heart, ask yourself why you want to adopt that animal. Try to look at the long road and picture the future for a moment. Rebound adoptions are like any other rebound relationship, they may be the perfect fit, but just as often they don’t represent a whole relationship and don’t last. Don’t hesitate to stop and ask yourself some realistic questions. You’ll find answers for the moment and for the future.
Sometimes well-meaning friends will address your loss with the offer of a pet who needs a home. We who rescue are always offering pets for adoption because that’s the best way we find homes for them, so it’s a natural and friendly thing for many people. This can be a blessing from a friend who knows you well, or it can be a mistake from someone who doesn’t. Because a friend, or friend of a friend, has approached you it’s more personal and it may be difficult to turn them down if you’re not ready yet, or you really aren’t interested in the pet they are offering you. Don’t ever feel pressured by someone else’s desire for you to have a pet. The decision is always yours.
And sometimes it’s not an adoption at all. There are times when an animal simply shows up in your life, either literally in your back yard or somewhere in your life, and there’s an immediate connection. Many of us would swear the pet you’ve lost, knowing what a loving human companion you are and how your heart is searching, has sent you an animal companion to either care for and love while you find a new home for it, or to keep forever. I’ve no doubt this happens and can relate dozens of stories, including my own, but maybe another time.
One thing for certain, even if you had never had a pet before, once you have, there is a pet-shaped space in your heart with room for more. Don’t decide not to adopt because you fear being hurt by loss. Remember that nearly all your time with your pet was the simple happiness that comes with everyday unconditional love, and someday that memory will outshine the memory of the loss.
My sympathies on your loss, and love and light in your journey to healing your grief.
The photo above is of the road through the cemetery where the ceremony is held. I love tree-lined sun-spattered roads like this, and each year a photo of this road is part of my memory of the ceremony. It’s called “Spattered Sunshine”, and I intentionally saturated the colors to make it brighter and more colorful, a road that, though touched with shadow, is equally touched with light and joyful colors, like our journey through grief, and through life.
Loving Again After Loss
I’m always happy to speak on this topic. It’s focused on why we choose to live with animals, especially after a loss. Deb watched me over a period of years lose a number of cats, then gain a number of cats, then lose again, and decided I would probably have something valuable to say about loving and losing and loving again, and I always draw from my own experiences:
In 2011 I spoke about losing all my senior cats in one year, and then losing Lucy, but that she brought me Mimi and her children.
In 2012 I spoke about losing my two oldest kitties, Cookie and Kelly, in one year and though I’d just lost Kelly a month before I knew it had changed my relationship with cats forever.
In 2013 I spoke about taking in Lakota and Emeraude knowing my relationship with them would be brief, and losing Lakota after six weeks but loving him nonetheless ( I didn’t realize I hadn’t shared this here, but had had it published in Pittsburgh PetConnections in September 2013. I will probably share this article again this coming Sunday as its own feature).
In 2014 I mentioned that our relationship with pets is not all about us, but about both of us, we and our pet and what each of us feels and gives and takes to and from each other, and pointing out that fosters, Emeraude, Kennedy and Basil, then named Smokie, had each been abandoned and even grievously injured by humans, and yet let go of that pain and turned around to love and trust another human who was a complete stranger.
In 2015 I spoke about animals being healers, and how they can soothe our grief without us even knowing it; apparently I didn’t share this afterward, but I’ll be adding it this year.
Why do we take animals into our lives? Because we need them, and also because they need us, and we can’t fear to love for fear of loss.
The ceremony always includes a section where Deb and I read the tributes written by families in attendance, just before the dove release. Last year I had no new losses to remember, but tomorrow, September 19, is an anniversary for me and my feline household. September 19, 1996, is the day Kublai transitioned from this existence to the next, and as the season changes I remember that September twenty years ago.
TRIBUTE TO KUBLAI KHAN, MY FIRST RESCUE
You still work your magic, not just on me but on all others who see your portrait, the cat who rescued me, on the 20th anniversary of your transition from this life to the next.
We had some press coverage too: Ceremony assists in dealing with death of one’s pet
Read more under the topic of Pet Loss on The Creative Cat.
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