Many of us, you included, have a love for our pets that’s too beautiful and singular to be simply called a bond. And when they die, they leave dark, empty spaces, and we grieve.
In 2010, I wrote a Long Beach Post article about pet-loss grief titled “The empty chair: How to say goodbye to longtime friends.” It dealt with allowing oneself to grieve, the guilt that we sometimes feel over not knowing the pet was ill or maybe holding on and extending their pain, facing the time when that decision has to be unquestionably made, and dealing with people who judge us when we need support: “For Pete’s sake, the dog’s been gone for a year. Aren’t you over it?” Or “They’re just a (dog, cat, rabbit, bird, boa constrictor, duck—fill in the blank).”
No, you never get “over it.” Through it, but not over it. We all know this now. From the time Mrs. Fineman, the cat of my childhood, died at 13 years old and I had monthly and weekly “grief bursts,” as Best Friends Animal Society director and volunteer coordinator Patty Hegwood called them, to the passing of 18-year-old Old Scratch, over whom I wailed although I’d had him for only 10 months, I’ve cried over a lot of cats and will likely do more. And I’ll love again.
Thanks to the internet and social media sites, we can now access communities of pet people. Eulogies for beloved nonhuman friends frequently show up on Nextdoor and Facebook, and there’s always a long thread of sympathetic, empathetic responses. And the occasional judgy remark, but we can block those comments. They’re unnecessary.
New ways to channel grief are easily available as well, often free of charge. Earlier this week, I attended “Love Lives On: Pet Loss Journaling,” an online workshop presented by Best Friends Animal Society and cohosted by Hegwood and Coleen Ellis of Two Hearts Pet Loss Center. Two Hearts Pet Loss Center was founded as a support and resource center for what Ellis calls the “end-of-life walk with a pet”—from grief at the certainty that your friend will be leaving forever through actually saying goodbye down to the aftermath of death. Ellis and Hegwood gave the participants ways to channel grief through writing and create a permanent memorial for the pet, with all the thoughts, feelings, silly names and everything unique that defined the love between the two of you. The cohosts frequently referred to the chat function and invited the participants to speak onscreen. It was like finding about 100 friends in a new, safe space and openly expressing feelings and experiences with support and without judgment.
Ellis defined grief for a pet as the pit-in-the-stomach feeling that we get when we wake up in the morning and can’t put one foot in front of the other. It’s full of first times: the first time you’ve never smelled their fur or feathers, the first time you don’t get smacked in the head with a paw at 6:30 a.m., the first time there isn’t a dish to fill.
“This may sound harsh, but I have a harder time grieving my cats than I do with most humans,” said one participant. Even without gallery view, you could see the heads nodding.
The participant said that it’s something they feel guilty about feeling, but the hosts said that guilt is a part of grief. You think that you missed a sign of distress, ignored one, or let the pet linger, maybe in pain, before you “put them to peace,” as Ellis sensitively put it. Sometimes, when you feel the grief lift or decide to adopt another pet, you might think it’s a sign that the pet has become forgotten.
“Those of us who have ever lost a beloved pet know how hard and lonely it is,” Ellis said. “I think it’s totally normal to second-guess yourself.”
Mourning is how we mend, Ellis said—the tears, the remembering, crying so hard that you throw up, something Hegwood said she’s done. But you’ve earned those tears—cry them out.
The old saw about time healing all wounds got a big phooey from Hegwood.
“I do believe ‘you do you’ in your own time, as we all process grief on our own time line,” she said. “Don’t structure your grief. That being said, I also recommend a bit of a commitment to journaling with regularity, as it is a muscle you build and it becomes easier to recall, write and distill your thoughts in a way that is healthy. Journaling provides the encapsulation of thought which prompts us to create next steps for ourselves—yet another tool to help us move forward in the healing process.“
“Being intentional with journaling is an incredibly mindful mourning activity to lean in to one’s own journey—as time passes, it’s fascinating how clarity begins to happen, memories become sharper,” Ellis said. “The beauty of journaling is the opportunity to pen thoughts at any time and to take those thoughts that might appear to be jumbled in our head and heart and release them on paper. And quite frankly, a beautiful tribute to a life lived, loved and shared takes on a whole new life of remembering and memories recorded for a version of a permanent memorialization of a beloved pet.”
Ellis suggested a number of journaling activities to channel grief. One moving activity involved writing a letter to your pet with everything you wish you could have said to them: “I’m sorry … I didn’t see … I didn’t know.” Let grammar, usage and spelling fall by the wayside so that your feelings aren’t edited.
“If it’s in your head, get it out,” Ellis said.
Scrapbooking is a form of emotional photojournalism through which you can create an album, either in a booklet or online, containing all the photographs of your pet that chime a note and your written thoughts about your friend.
You can also use the prompts and guidelines that Two Hearts provides, including a printable pet-loss journal that you can print out by accessing the link. The journal includes four weeks of prompts for each month. February, for example and not surprisingly, is the month of love; prompts include creating a poem, haiku, song or video using the word “love” and writing a love letter to your pet. That one would be good any month, in fact.
You know what else you can put in the journal? Those online eulogies you posted on social media when your pet died, along with the responses from people in your friends list. Those posts are journaling, too. In fact, check out your entire feed for all the stuff you wrote about your buddy since they came home with you or a post from a couple of years ago. Copying them longhand into your journal is an organic way to help you.
Hegwood added that holding on to grief can keep you from moving on, especially if you worry that you’ll forget your pet if you stop mourning them.
“We talk about permanent memorialization—what can be better than a journal?” Ellis said.
The Two Hearts and Best Friends home pages have resources and outlets for your grief that weren’t easily available when Google was just gurgling in the crib. (Best Friends’ grief resources are available here.) Bookmark Best Friends’ Angels Rest Memorial Facebook page for future Two Hearts online journaling sessions.
Long after your pet has passed away, you’ll reread your journal and find something you may have forgotten that you’d written. By then, the pain will likely have transformed into something ineffably sweet. You will have done what it takes to get through it and also to honor your friend. As Ellis said during the presentation, “to honor death is to honor life.” As I always say, the flip side of love is grief. And as Maude said to Harold, “Go love some more!”
This article is dedicated to all the pets who’ve passed away and will, to all the humans who grieved and still do, to anyone who’s ever had to make the decision to say goodbye to a loved animal, and to every shelter volunteer who’s loved an animal and every shelter employee who’s put one down and cried over it. May there always be paw prints in your hearts.
The Empty Chair: How To Say Goodbye To Longtime Friends
Jellicle Cats Rescue Foundation’s founder, Brandy Gaunt, has had to say goodbye to a lot of pointy-eared friends—and one, Bob, with no ears at all—through both her rescue and her own permanent roommates, all of whom were rescued in one way or another. Gaunt is enigmatic as any cat and as eloquent as any who’d been given the gift of speech along with opposable thumbs to keyboard them out. Here’s part of her contribution about pet-loss grief:
“After so many years and so many losses, I am long past the point of being self-conscious about wiping tears from my face as I leave the vet’s office with an empty carrier, which is (arguably) the hardest part of the entire process. I leave a piece of my heart in that exam room every single time I say goodbye. But I know, every time, that the difference I’ve made in the life of that animal is almost as big as the difference they have made in mine. I will mourn, and I will ache, and I will cry, but in the end, it’s worth it, knowing that I have done my best for each and every one of them and that those animals got to be loved until the very end.”
Wipe your eyes so you can see the monitor, and go love some more. You can take one of these deserving cats home when you fill out this application and it’s approved. See more Jellicles here.
Great furballs of fun!
Pawlentine’s Day Adoption Event: Speed-dating in the best possible way. Find your best match at our shelter, and bring lots of love to the residents already there. Long Beach Animal Care Services invites the community to enjoy music, photos and decorating Valentine’s Day cards to bring home to your pets or place in the shelter’s pets’ Pawlentine’s Day treat buckets. Please also bring unopened store-bought pet treats and toys to put in the treat buckets. Money can’t buy love, so adoption fees will be waived for all pets during the event. Remember—please leave your own pets at home.
This free event will be held Saturday, Feb. 11, from 2 p.m.–3 p.m. at Long Beach Animal Care Services, 7700 E. Spring St. (At the entrance to El Dorado Park, there are no parking fees for shelter visitors.)
Valentine’s Day with the Fix Project: Champagne! Goodies! Double-chocolate fountain! Love songs of all genres by the fabulous Jennifer Corday! Not for your dog, of course, but for you. All proceeds from the event’s entrance, raffles and drink specials will, however, help The Fix Project heal our fragile Valentines. The event’s host, Roundin’ 3rd Sports Bar and Grill, will generously donate 20% of the tab to the organization.
This free event will be held Tuesday, Feb. 14, 4 p.m.–10 p.m., at Roundin’ 3rd Sports Bar and Grill, 4133 E. Anaheim St.
Inaugural Bob Long Memorial 5k and 1k Mutt Run and adoption event: Signal Hill Rotary Club sponsors a great way to exercise both you and your dog and raise some money for our shelter and special projects in Signal Hill. Bring your dog—any breed or mix—to run or walk at your own pace. You can run without your dog, but they’re welcome to spectate with a responsible human. Enter a Valentine’s Day-themed costume contest with your furry sweetie-pie. Best of all, Long Beach Animal Care Services’ Adoption Waggin’ will roll up to the finish line. Even more best of all, 70% of the profits will go to the shelter, with 30% going to the Rotary Club’s Community Project Fund—talk about a sweetheart deal.
The event will be held Saturday, Feb. 18, 9 a.m.–2 p.m., at the Claremont Launch Ramp near Rosie’s Dog Beach, 5300 E. Ocean Blvd. The 5k begins at 9 a.m. with a $55 registration fee, while the 1k starts at 9:30 a.m. and has a $20 registration fee. Dogs must be leashed and stay on the pedestrian path at all times. Visit the Rotary Club’s Bob Long Memorial Run page for more information.
CatPAWS 10th Annual Bowling Fundraiser: Join up with Team Kitty and rack up a few winners for the cats and kittens at Helen Sanders CatPAWS. Bowl for two hours, or just watch the pins fall like a veritable feline. Chow down on hearty appetizers or a personal pizza, with soft drink included. All tickets include an opportunity drawing, and prizes will be awarded for highest and lowest scores.
The event will be held Saturday, March 18, 2 p.m.–5:30 p.m., at Westminster Lanes, 6471 Westminster Blvd. It costs $45 per bowler or $20 to sit on the sidelines and cheer. Buy tickets here. All proceeds benefit CatPAWS.
Foster for a while—or furever!
The more than 300 LBACS dogs, cats and bunnies need your help, as The Scratching Post stresses. The city of Long Beach’s commitment to Compassion Saves means that animals in our care can live and thrive. We need our community to show its support of Compassion Saves by fostering, adopting, volunteering, and donating.
LBACS has reached urgent capacity with the influx of incoming animals to the shelter during the holidays. There is no more kennel space to take in more dogs at the shelter. To maintain the LBACS Compassion Saves model of helping those in greatest need—the sick, injured and abused—your help is needed to keep the healthy and lost pets out of the shelter. If you are interested in adopting, please email [email protected] or apply to foster here.
If you’ve always wanted a pet but aren’t sure if you’re ready for a lifetime (the animal’s) commitment, or if you’re past the pet-roommate days for any reason, fostering might be a great way to go, especially with one or more of the kittens popping up during kitten season. Every one of the organizations listed below is in desperate need of fosters who’ll social them and help save their little lives. Who knows—maybe one of those lives will change your mind about the not-ready-for-a-roommate thing.
These nonprofits also regularly feature cat, dog and rabbit adoptions. As of now, adoptions are mainly by appointment. Click on the links for each rescue in case of updates or changes. These organizations operate through donations and grants, and anything you can give would be welcome. Please suggest any Long Beach-area rescues to add to the list. Keep in mind that the rescues are self-supporting and need donations and volunteer help. Most of them cannot accept found or unwanted pets. Contact Long Beach Animal Care Services for options.
German Shepherd Rescue of Orange County
Long Beach Animal Care Services
Long Beach Spay and Neuter Foundation
Pet Food Express Cat Adoption Center
Sparky and the Gang Animal Rescue