When my guinea pig died in my arms I sobbed, I sobbed loud, I sobbed hard, I sobbed for ages. And honestly it doesn’t matter how many people laugh at me or smirk at the comment – that shit was real. I was devestated. I loved him, he was such a character and I’d spent many a weekend (alone, yet again) sat with him on the sofa watching Sex and the City (yes I was lonely at 27 too) and feeling cared for.
Finally, some fucking love, and it came from an animal.
The fact is, animals are replacing the human contact and love so many crave, and I’d include myself as one of them.
***TRIGGER WARNING*** brief talk of mental health crisis coming
I won’t be graphic, because I rarely am. That’s a choice I make so I don’t accidentally glamourise the ugly, real-life, real-world, physical effects of mental health.
Our dog, Pepper, is an incredible love machine. She’d spend all day wagging her tail in anticipation of a belly rub or a chin scratch. She’s a bit of a (physical) attention whore. It just makes us love her more.
But, unequivocally, that dog has saved my life. Twice.
I’ll talk about the most vivid memory I have with as much detail as possible removed.
She sat with me just a few days after our daughter was born sleeping, and in that grief-stricken, pure shock moment her tail was still, her pant was silent and her almost oil-slick-black eyes were fixated on me.
I don’t know what she knew and I don’t know what she thought – the goings-on in an animals mind is a luxury I’ll never be able to appreciate. But I needed human intervention urgently and in its absence I got a furry guilt-maker and (thankfully) she knew exactly how to play me.
When crisis hits, in the depths of your minds most uncooperative, unstable and unreliable moments, it’s hard to see a way out that isn’t dangerous. In my mind I didn’t want the phone to ring or the door to knock, what I THOUGHT I needed was an opportunity to concentrate and find clarity amongst the mind mud I was stuck in. But at the time that clarity wasn’t craved to work out distractions, fast, effective help, human support or crisis prevention. It was aimed at increasing personal pain and self punishment. Irrational thoughts are complex and messy, but sometimes your damaged brain tells you that’s all you have left – it’s a game mine plays on me even today.
Retrospectively I can look at those events and see that appropriate intervention was the obvious solution, but the mud was hiding that option. It wasn’t there to consider.
Somehow Pepper knew SOMETHING, and she altered her behaviour, and incredibly displayed concern and love. It was a glimmer, a tiny reminder of positivity and light. She watched me with that changed demeanour for a considerable amount of time. Maybe hours. She was steadfastly by my side on the kitchen floor. She looked at me, staring through the pain and misery and guilted me away from danger. Her different behaviour was extreme enough to act as that desperately needed distraction.
And I still believe today that my perception of Peppers love in that moment changed the outcome dramatically.
Did she know? Was the concern real? Was the attitude alteration deliberate? I have no idea. Rationally, maybe not. But this is an animal who is usually her masters dog, and besides craving cheeky treats or a lovely fluffy fuss, her attention has almost always been aimed at my partner. Her desire to sit with me was something I’d never before experienced – normally she spent our time alone at home waiting attentively by the door for the return of my other half at the end of the working day.
Unquestionably, it was out of character.
But it’s not like she handed me a tissue, talked to me about my pain, offered tactile attention like a cuddle or held my hand. She’s a fucking dog. But I remember her reaction to my desperation was to sit with me, the other owner who’s attention was rarely needed day-to-day, for as long as I sobbed. She chose to stare at me and my deep depression, licking my tears and laying her head on my thighs until the tears cleared the mud and I could find the abscent solution, the safer solution, and I picked up the phone.
Whether deliberate, a conscious effort, or just the reaction of a dog wondering why her female human was sat on the kitchen floor crying, she helped.
It’s no wonder they’re so important to us, is it? They’re a part of our best and worst moments, they need our daily care but it rarely feels like a chore, they help your brain produce serotonin, making you feel calmer in their presence and their unconditional love doesn’t always feel like it’s coming from an animal.
I believe their presence in our lives isn’t just a relaxing, positive one. There are added benefits we probably don’t think about on the day they come home with you and navigate their home, new comfortable bed and unfamiliar human-based hierarchy. Their calming effects are real and the unconditional love, affection and attachment we feel for them is normally instantaneous.
Not many people are so cold and indifferent that they fail to want to love them and give them the sumptuous, comfortable and contented life they deserve. Why do they deserve it? In return for the better world they give us, without doing a single thing but being present. They deserve it for unconditional love and dependence. They deserve it for tolerance and adapting to our busy lives and crazy timetables. They deserve it for fireworks that cause many to cower in fear of the next flash or explosion.
Pepper deserves it for saving me from myself.
Pepper isn’t my only pet experience. My cat moved out with me when my marriage broke down a decade ago. He made the loss of my financial security, friends, long term relationship and the anxiety over a new, unknown and scary middle-aged life alone, much easier to handle. I was suddenly thrown into a lonely existence, a life I had to rebuild from the ground up on my own, and an adjusted reality with an abundance of emptiness. But my aloof and ususally disgruntled cat gave me a cushion of love that made it easier to accept. An old friend remained, and despite his single-minded attitude and his cringey looks of despair over my new and uncharted life, he was always there to greet me at the end of my day. He’d break the silence with his purrs and replaced the missing human tactility by wrapping his tail around my legs and forcing me to give him a fuss the second I sat down. It was bloody lovely.
And my other pets in the past from rabbits to Guinea pigs and hamsters to goldfish, have provided the same level of companionship and (besides the fish) the fuzzy attachment that I needed, especially on lonely and dark days.
Not always fluffy
I’ve never owned a reptile, snake, spider or other less-downy animals, but I’ve known many other people who have, and although the relationship felt different and the owner-animal partnering worked in an alternative way, they still gave those owners companionship and distractions when needed.
It also seemed there were mindfulness benefits from tank-dwelling pets that I’ve not had the time to experience. Owners I knew talked of hours with a book and the quiet scurry of a lizard or the slow, deliberate movements of a tortoise taking place in the background. Little, hushed, discreet noises quietly puncturing their silence and giving them that same sense of companionship without the very deliberate requests for attention that the usual pets require.
It seems to me that if you want a pet without the fussy needs, but still the added relaxing benefits, this option could work for you!
But I’ve said before that when we make a choice to accept love or give love to anyone or anything, the price we pay for it’s / their wonderful presence, companionship and unconditional warmth, is one day facing the inevitable goodbye.
Despite living a life filled with grief that causes me ongoing, weird and annoying mental health difficulties. Despite living with strange symptoms that are hard to wrestle with every day. Despite knowing that owning a companion animal will one day add to my grief pile. Owning an animal is a positive choice I’ll always be willing to make and I’ll encourage my daughter to do the same (possibly regretting that comment already, knowing i’ll one day be cursing as I scrape out the damp contents of her hamster cage…again).
I genuinely think the advantages of having a fuzzy partner-in-crime and having that openly offered love they provide far outweighs the inevitable heartache that always lays ahead.
So, more often than not, the level of pain every one of us experiences when it’s time to bid adieu, the agony of farewell to a long-term comrade, a fully-fledged member of your clan, is copious and deeply intense. And those feelings are 100% valid and logical, although unfortunately navigating that anguish isn’t straightforward or uncomplicated.
Coping with goodbye
But as with all grief, the agony, ache and distress will gradually become manageable and eventually one day you can remember them for the happy memories and unconditional love they provided.
How long that takes will vary wildly from person to person, but you can do many things to help you manage the emotion when it’s time. These ideas are especially helpful for children, who struggle more than us when trying to understand a friend won’t be coming back. I’ve heard of memory boxes, framed pictures with hidden notes, writing your thoughts about them, illustrating them, remembering them fondly, going on their regular walks anyway, time capsules and talking openly about their wonderful qualities, can help some people navigate loss and sorrow.
But don’t be frustrated that it’s taking time – it’s perfectly reasonable to grieve a pet as long as your mind needs to. The usual reaction we feel at someones passing are absolutely normal for our quieter companions too. Think about the seven stages of grief and understand you’re probably going to experience some, if not all of them, as time passes;
- Shock and denial
- Pain and guilt
- Anger and bargaining
- Depression, reflection and lonliness
- The upward turn
- Reconstruction and working through
- Acceptance and hope
I took this list from the knowledgeable website recover-from-grief.com on the 7 stages of grief page which contains more information on how each stage of the process feels. However, there are other theories with less stages, more stages and different descriptions. On the whole I’ve been at different stages of this list throughout most of my adult life, and still wrestling 4 of them today, and that’s why I’ve chosen this list to show you.
“Grief is the price we pay for love.” 💕Queen Elizabeth II, in condolence of the 250 british victims of the 9/11 terror attacks
I’ve quoted this phrase several times on this site, and while it’s true I also believe it’s wise to remember that love was the gift we were given before the grief, and although the love creates the pain, it also leaves the memories and makes them warm and comforting as the bleaker days pass by.
If you’re done with my piffle and want some real, professional and researched help (I am just another human, after all), then I recommend Cruse who, without question, are the grief specialists (what a difficult claim to fame that is!). They have a dedicated Pet Loss page with useful information on ways of managing for both adults and children, including a list of ideas to make the last days with your companion as special and comfortable as you can manage.
The Blue Cross offer real-time support and a free and confidential Pet Bereavement Support Service. They have a phone, email and webchat options available. More information is available on their Pet Bereavement and Pet Loss page.
The very existence of this type of support proves that you aren’t alone, many others are fighting the urge to sob uncontrollably for a friend they’ve lost, and your feelings about it, the reaction of your emotions, is unquestionably valid.
As with all posts, I knew an accompanying picture was needed for this page. I chose, quite deliberately, to depict one of my old friends (the cat mentioned earlier) in his new happy place – on a cloud watching over Rainbow Bridge.
It’s been 8 years since he passed away and I remember the day with clarity. He was clearly unwell and saying goodbye, although expected, was traumatic and brought a flood of tears from me and my partner (a man I’d never seen cry before) as we held his paws to the end.
I’m able to remember his loyalty and aloofness now and be thankful for the time I had with him and the comfort he gave me when I’d lost all I had. I owe him so much, just like all my animals, and I wish I’d appreciated him more. I think that’s a common regret for all pet owners.
The only lesson I’ve learned is to FULLY appreciate those we have while they’re still here, so you can build the memories you’ll need one day to survive without them.