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 grieving a loss. Even if it’s not recent, even if the loss was years ago and it had nothing to do with the holidays, this time of family, friends, socializing, choosing special gifts and making memories is a marker in our year. 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.
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 a little over a month later—and still grieving the losses of Moses and Cream earlier that year. But I was completely unprepared and intentionally carried that sadness for Sophie. Tears would roll down my cheeks with no provocation, they were just always there, ready to fall. I made no gifts, I sent no cards, 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, and I would have to talk about it. They would be understanding, but I just didn’t want to talk about losing Sophie. 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 like that. It was an insult to her that I only remembered that 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 as if they were kittens or fresh kill with big announcements. 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. And I just couldn’t bear the thought of that. That 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.
Five things you can do to help yourself
- Allow yourself to feel pain or sadness. Don’t hide from 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 and 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, 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 grief at the loss of a pet.
- Include your pet in your holidays. Your feel your pet’s loss constantly so 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. Have a good holiday 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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