The holiday season, from Thanksgiving through the New Year, with all the extra social time and expectations can be a jumble of tears and anger if you are anticipating or grieving a loss.
Grieving a loss, even if the loss is not recent, even if the loss was years ago and whether or not it happened during the holidays, this time of family, friends, socializing, choosing special gifts and making memories is a marker in our year and can enhance our grief. It’s natural to remember all the previous holidays as you decorate, prepare food, shop, and visit, and if a beloved part of those memories isn’t with you any more you just can’t get away from it. This is even worse if you lost a pet during the holiday season and memories of their decline and death are mixed with memories of the holiday time.
On top of the fact that your memories of previous years clearly remind you of the loss, the extra socializing can be a nightmare as you try to manage your grief when you don’t really feel like going to the office party or the grab bag gift exchange. You stand a greater chance of encountering people who don’t understand your grief at losing a pet, and even if they do understand you may find yourself explaining over and over about the loss and that can be overwhelming.
Caretaking is often sad and difficult work. Palliative care for a critically ill or terminally ill pet can be a lonely endeavor, made all the more difficult by a time of year when we are more social than usual, outside of our usual circle of friends, some of whom may not understand or accept, or even object to, your devotion. The expectation to spend more time away, or having to either cancel an obligation or leave your pet can tear you apart.
Five things you can do to help yourself
- Allow yourself to feel pain or sadness. Don’t hide from your sadness at your pet’s condition or your grief. Don’t push the feeling away, but recognize it, understand it, go ahead and cry, and let it pass on its own. Holding it off, holding it in, denying it, telling yourself you shouldn’t feel that way will only stress you and you may instead feel resentful, irritable or angry. Your pain will sometimes emerge in tears or anger at unexpected times, and directed at someone who doesn’t deserve it, and you may hurt someone else or yourself.
- Plan your holiday time, especially social time, and prepare yourself for meeting the public and participating in social activities. If people knew your pet or know that you are giving palliative care, plan what you’ll tell them about your loss if they ask, and whether or not you might want to bring it up yourself. And, as you do at other times, avoid people who don’t understand your caretaking or grief at the loss of a pet. But it’s good to give yourself a break with friends who understand during caretaking and during grieving at any time of the year.
- Include your pet in your holidays. Your pet may not be well enough to meet guests but if it is, let it socialize, or take those who are interested and loving to see your pet. Share your caretaking. If you’re grieving a loss you probably feel your pet’s loss constantly but it may seem they’ll just get lost in the shuffle of activities and be forgotten, and there is no more desolate feeling. Find ways to keep your pet present, for you and others who know you and remember your pet. Include decorations that were part of your relationship with your pet, like a stocking with their name on it, or a personalized ornament. Do something extra to add their presence, like frame your favorite photo of your pet and feature it prominently in your holiday display, or have a gift made for yourself with their photo, like a throw or a pillow that you’ll see and use. When friends or family come over bring up a memory of your pet from earlier holidays and point out the special things you’ve added in their memory.
- Be kind to yourself, as you always should be while grieving. Make sure you really want to be part of social gatherings and limit your time if you feel you need to. Don’t overindulge but find some comfort foods and activities that make you feel happy.
- Make a memorial to your pet. Get a live tree that you can plant outside and then decorate each year. Make a holiday donation in your pet’s name at an animal shelter or rescue, or sponsor an adoption so that another pet will be sure to have a chance to know a life with a person like your pet had with you.
Be aware of how you feel, and accommodate where you are. Remember the good moments with your pet, and make sure you allow yourself some smiles and even laughs at your memories. Most of all, share the caretaking and the loss with others so that you don’t feel isolated, and that your experience and your pet’s will not be forgotten.
The year I lost Sophie
I lost my Sophie unexpectedly right after Thanksgiving and because it was so unexpected I just could not move on.
I’d been watching Stanley for signs of decline at age 24—I would lose him about two months later—and still grieving the losses of Moses and Cream earlier that year. I will share the full story someday, but my veterinarian and I thought she was only experiencing possible allergies, something that made her voice a little ragged at the end of summer. She was still her usual goofy self but her appetite began waning before Thanksgiving and I told my vet she had lost weight; her condition hung over everything for me as Thanksgiving approached. We tried steroids and she seemed to respond, but I could see it was temporary.
When I decided to take her for imaging the last day of November they discovered a shadowy mass around her esophagus and trachea. They suspected it was a malignant regrowth of a cutaneous horn growth she had had removed from just above her right eye four years previous; they commonly recur and can sometimes become cancerous in the way that a skin mole can, and will sometimes grow inside rather than outside. In her case it had likely grown into her sinus cavity and down into her throat. No one would have known this was happening, and it was impossible to diagnose in full without more exacting imaging and a biopsy, and, regardless, not even surgery could correct it.
Worst of all, whether the stress of the exam or she had just been able to maintain control up to that point, she went into respiratory distress after the imaging to a degree that she needed to be in an oxygen tent. I had to have her put to sleep right then. I couldn’t even take her home overnight and call my veterinarian the next day, but I was able to take Sophie to my veterinarian’s home that evening, closer to mine and familiar, to have her put to sleep. Later, disbelieving, I sat up all night with her curled on my lap at my desk surrounded by all my other cats, working on an annual guardianship report for my mother that was quite late but the focus on dates and expenses helped me get through the first hours of grief. I listened to the sudden wind of a cold front howling and moaning outside the window, causing the bracket holding the bird feeders to swing and emit a long, mournful squeal every few minutes, a sound I’d not heard before nor since. Later we all moved up sit to my bed, and in the morning I took her to be cremated.
I was completely unprepared and intentionally carried that sadness for Sophie. Sophie was deeply special for me, and it was as if someone had ripped off my arm and left me helpless and in shock. I continued my work day to day but emotionally stopped in that moment and would not move forward to accept what had happened. Tears would roll down my cheeks with no provocation, they were just always there, ready to fall. I did my work but made no gifts, I sent no cards, I visited no one, I prepared nothing except getting things together at the last minute for the Christmas dinner I always made for my mother and brother who each lived in personal care.
As I was cooking Christmas dinner three weeks after her death, the tears were still falling. I would go to get my mother and brother when I was done cooking the meal, and they would ask because they had noticed she’d lost weight at Thanksgiving, and I would have to talk about it. They would be understanding, but I just didn’t want to talk about losing Sophie because that would be admitting it had happened. I really didn’t want to talk at all. I was just resisting everything so I could stay where I was.
But what hurt me most was that holding onto losing her didn’t make me feel any better, in fact, it kept hurting just as much, and I didn’t want to remember her that way, as a painful memory. It was an insult to her that I only remembered that final painful part of our 16 years. I wanted to laugh at the silly things she did, to remember how petting her fur felt like petting a cloud, her little chirps and trills, and her incessantly bringing me hair scunchies and washcloths with big announcements as if they were kittens or fresh kill. If I kept holding onto the pain of those hours of losing her, I would never get to remember her as I had loved her, in fact, I might turn away from her because she had become a source of pain. And I just couldn’t bear the thought of that.
Christmas was the day I looked at Cookie and knew she’d been grieving her best friend as much as me, and we both decided to move on. My mother and brother were both quiet and respectful in telling me they were sorry for my loss of Sophie, and that admission helped me accept and begin to move toward acceptance.
I still feel a twinge of pain for how her loss happened, and Thanksgiving always reminds me. But I joyfully remember her.
Have a good holiday, cherish all those happy memories, and create new, good memories to be part of your annual tradition.
Read more in Pet Loss on The Creative Cat.
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