Can One Truly Prepare For Pet Loss?

HA! Pet Love & Loss

Article by adjunct faculty, Dalma Heyn, Pet-Loss Grief Specialist, Psychotherapist

When practice doesn’t make perfect…

Last time I spoke about some of the ancient Stoics’ ideas for having a better life. Dr. Jeff and I were taken by, among other good things, their focus on lessening the pain of loss by consciously, deliberately, planning for it well in advance.

We cannot control events—like hurricanes, or death—but, they believe, we can prepare for them and thus control our emotional response to them when they do happen.

Most of us tend to be averse to thinking about the future’s scary things – particularly, in our culture, death and dying. This aversion holds true even though we who have companion animals know, intellectually anyway, that we’ll likely be around at the end of their lives. Even so, we hate to think about it too much. Stoics advise us to look it right in the eye and, instead of running from it, plan for it.

As I looked more deeply into their thinking, I noticed something in me that I wanted to share here. I realized that, unless one has practiced this kind of disciplined mind-control for many years, we’re likely to fall short of success in the case of pet loss.

We may know that our beloved pets’ lives are shorter than our own, and we may even plan for it as well as we know how. But, in my experience, we cannot imagine how desperately unhappy their deaths are likely to make us; we just can’t comprehend, in the abstract, this onslaught of emotion.

The theory and practice of doing what we can to anticipate this loss may be healthy, and is probably the most we can do to prepare for the pain. But the stunning force of the loss when it happens can simply knock the wind out of us.

It’s this gut punch, the sudden immersion in a sea of emotion, that my clients say overwhelms them. I share this not to dismiss an important and helpful ancient practice, but to offset any shame and guilt that may crop up when doing all that homework, all that hopeful acceptance of the inevitable, fails us anyway.

Think of the years-long preparations to shore up levy systems, strengthen power grids, and build competent flood walls, in southwestern Florida, before Hurricane Ian smashed everything to bits. As careful as their planning was; as hard and long as they worked to prepare; who can deny that the storm’s devastation simply defied all preparations? 

Does this mean Florida shouldn’t have prepared for the storm? Of course not. Does it mean that the Stoics’ techniques for offsetting pain are useless? Not at all. But it does mean that sometimes, try as we might to insure against our own devastation, physical or emotional, when what we planned for comes to pass, we have no idea what hit us.

If and when that happens, dear pet parents, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Emotion is a wild thing, not easily controlled. And the really good news is that there is a whole community right here that understands and will support you in every way possible.

Until next time….

Dalma

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Dalma Heyn, MSW, LMSW, is a therapist, author and certified pet-loss grief specialist, who lives at the Connecticut shore with her scruffy, fluffy Havanese, Luna. Dalma graduated from The University of Southern California with a degree in psychology and English, and from New York University with a MA degree in social work.

Speaking and writing about human intimate relationships for so many years brought her to another kind of intimate relationship: the one we have with our companion animals. Dalma finds that many aspects of this love are woefully underestimated, for reasons she discusses here with other passionate readers on this site. Her mission is to shed light on this important reciprocal love–which she believes can transform the inevitable loss of our pets from an unbearable experience to a meaningful and healing one. Dalma is now available for consultations for our members.