Were you unable to say goodbye to your pet before they passed?
Sadly, many pet carers end up in a situation where their pet passes away at home or outside without them, goes missing, or dies at the vets. The latter can be due to complications before, during or after surgery, for example, or because the vet’s investigations have unexpectedly revealed a serious health condition.
Death without closure
We, humans, like to have closure. We tend to see things in a linear way, understanding that life has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Before we experience a bereavement for the first time, most of us believe that grief is something you work through until you find closure and are able to move on.
In reality, bereavement is far more complicated. There is no true end to grief, it simply becomes something that we learn to live with, and that becomes more bearable and less of a shock with time.
And as much as we would like to be able to plan or predict the end of a pet’s life, it isn’t always possible.
Unfortunately, when we’re not able to say goodbye to a loved one, such as a precious animal friend, it can intensify the feeling of having unfinished business or no hope of closure.
This is often distressing.
If you weren’t able to say goodbye to your pet, you may find that you’re struggling with feelings of guilt, anger or remorse.
For some people, not being able to say goodbye contributes to states of frozen or incomplete grief. This is because the parting wasn’t what you’d imagined or wanted or what you felt you both deserved.
There’s a good chance that you didn’t know you would never see your pet again the last time you were with them. This can cause feelings of regret.
Be kind to yourself
When a parting is sudden or unexpected and you’re not able to be with your loved one to say goodbye, it’s common to replay the circumstances in which they died and focus on thoughts of “If only I had done X, Y or Z”.
In The Ralph Site’s private Facebook group, people often say that they wish they’d gone to the vet sooner or recognised how poorly their pet was or that they hadn’t gone out/gone to bed/gone on holiday.
There’s always something we wish we could change.
If you’re having these thoughts, the important thing to remember is that you’re viewing the situation with hindsight and judging yourself using information you have now but didn’t have at the time.
You did the best you could with what you knew, and your intentions came from a place of love. You wouldn’t be reading this article if they didn’t!
Even if you did make a mistake that contributed to your pet dying or you not being able to be with them at the end of their life, please show yourself compassion.
What would you say to a friend in the same situation?
No doubt you’d be kind to them. You’d tell them that they’re human and that humans make mistakes sometimes. You’d encourage them to exercise self-forgiveness and to learn from their mistakes.
Now is the time to treat yourself with the same kindness you would show a friend.
Steps to help you say goodbye
Having the opportunity to say goodbye is an integral part of the healing process when we lose someone we love. Even when we know the outcome isn’t what we would choose, most of us are hardwired to seek out a resolution.
While you’ve been robbed of the opportunity to be with your pet physically for their final breath, it is still possible to say goodbye. After all, your animal companion was so much more than a physical being. They were a unique personality, a member of your family, part of your daily routines, a friend and confidante, and saying goodbye will be gradual.
What you may also discover is that, in the process of saying goodbye, you actually learn that many of the qualities your pet had – and the love you feel for them – will continue to live on inside of you. In this way, goodbye isn’t as final as you might think.
Here are some ways you can say goodbye to your pet without being with them:
- Focus on the times you were with them
As we’ve said above, your pet was and is so much more than their physical being or when, how or why they died. Before their death, they had a rich and beautiful life. You shared at least some of that with them.
We know that you’re hurting because you couldn’t physically say goodbye and that your thoughts may be stuck on “if only…”, but each time you think a negative thought about what you weren’t able to do or say at the end, see if you can counter the thought with a positive memory of what you were able to do at other times in their life.
This should help you see that you were there for your animal companion so many other times that mattered.
Saying goodbye plays an important role when we’re grieving. It helps us to transition from a reality where our loved one was alive to a reality where they’re not.
It’s one of the reasons that almost all cultures have death rites and rituals.
This can be missing from pet loss, even when everything about our pet’s end of life goes as we would have imagined.
Many people take comfort in creating a memorial for their pet. You might want to bury them in your garden so you can spend time near their physical remains. You might want to scatter their ashes under a favourite plant or in a favourite place.
Some people choose to create a memorial in their home in their pet’s favourite spot or in a chosen corner.
There are no right or wrong approaches. All that matters is that you’re able to create a space where you feel close to your pet.
- Find ways to honour your loved one
A great deal of comfort can come from being able to say, “This animal lived, and they mattered, and the world was better – I was better – because they were in it for a time”.
One way to say this is to find ways to honour your pet.
Making a donation, showing kindness, talking about them, fostering an animal, sponsoring someone, celebrating your pet – these are all valid ways to honour their memory. Just choose what feels right for you.
When you haven’t been able to say goodbye, it can be helpful to write a letter to your pet, saying all the things you would have wanted to say if you were with them.
You could bury the letter with your pet or have it cremated with them, if there’s still the opportunity to do this. Alternatively, you could burn it, bury it, rip it up, or keep it somewhere special. Again, the choice is yours.
If you had a pet who went outside, did they have a favourite place? Is there somewhere you spent a lot of time together?
You may feel closer to your pet in a place that meant a lot to you both. Some people visit a special place to talk to their lost loved one, reflect on the past, tap into happy memories, grieve, celebrate happier times, and say goodbye.
- Create something to express your feelings
We talked in a recent blog about how alternative therapies can be helpful for processing a bereavement. If you’re someone who enjoys painting, sculpting, knitting, sewing or, indeed, any kind of crafting, you could make something to express your feelings of loss and to say goodbye to your pet.
Some people find it healing to create a photobook or scrapbook of their pet’s life and precious memories of time spent together.
For many of us, being able to talk about our grief is one of the most helpful ways to process our feelings. If you have a good support network with your friends and family, you might want to talk to them about how difficult it has been to not be able to say goodbye to your pet.
You may feel that you need more formal and experienced support in the form of a pet bereavement counsellor. This can provide you with a safe space to talk about every aspect of your pet loss.
Alternatively, a community like The Ralph Site’s private Facebook pet loss group is the ideal place to connect with other bereaved pet carers, many of whom may share your feelings about being unable to say goodbye, even if their circumstances were different.
Goodbye is more than a word
As much as Hollywood loves a poignant death scene and a tearful last embrace, the reality is that it isn’t always possible to be with a beloved pet when they die.
But goodbye is so much more than a word.
With pet loss, it’s a slow letting go of your animal’s physical presence, while you realise that the memories will always be with you.