posted March 23, 2021
by Rev. Russell Elleven, DMin, VLCE
There are many benefits to becoming vegan in this day and time. We vegans talk about those benefits often. When we stop using animals there is often a benefit to the individual’s health, as well as the health of the planet. But for vegans it is the health of the animal that is most important. We see animals for their inherent worth and dignity rather than how their presence benefits us. In doing so we are still somewhat of an oddity in today’s society.
Because we see animals for who they are, we also connect with them in a profound way—particularly those who live with us. And when it comes time for them to leave us, to die, our hearts break and we are sometimes overwhelmed by grief. As the philosopher, Winne the Pooh, once said, “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”
This grief, I believe, is something we should talk about more often. We are bombarded by messages that say we “should get over it” or “move on” or “just get another dog/cat,” etc. when our animal companion dies. These are unhelpful ideas which only reinforce the disenfranchisement of our grief. We see the individual who has died while society may see only a dog or a cat or another kind of companion animal.
Whether our animal companion dies naturally or at the hands of a veterinarian we are often bereft with guilt. We wonder if we’d gone to the vet sooner, if we’d fed a different type of food, or if we only had enough money for the surgery or treatment, that our companion might be with us today. We always do the best we can.
There are three things I’d like to suggest as we confront the inevitable death of our animal companions. I have supported dozens of people through the process of grieving their animal companions and I have found these things to be most helpful.
First, there is no need for you to grieve alone. There is likely a pet loss support group in your area (or online) and it is good to be with others who understand your loss. Being with others in a nonjudgmental environment can work wonders in your ability to open up and talk about the pain you have experienced when your companion animal died. I would be happy to help anyone who has difficulty locating a support group. I believe taking part in this type of supportive environment is the most important step you can take to help you feel a bit better after a loss. Leaders of these groups can also often help you locate a professional therapist should that be desired or deemed necessary.
Second, forget about stages or how you should be grieving. I’ve found that some folks have heard about the stages of grief and want to make sure they are following the steps correctly, thinking that if they do, they’ll feel better in the end. This isn’t very helpful. Grief is personal. Grief does not often follow stages or steps. If you expect to feel better by following steps or stages, you’ll likely be disappointed, and this does not help when you are already in a vulnerable state.
Third, find a way to memorialize your animal companion in a way that feels real and authentic. We often hear that a funeral or memorial service helps with closure when our humans die. I’m not sure closure is the correct word but I will say that memorializing loved ones often helps a great deal more than it hurts. There are many ways to memorialize your animal companion today. Don’t let anyone tell you the right or proper way to do this. You know how to do this. Doing this will be painful but it will also be healing.
These three things will not fix you, but they will be of help. We do not get over the loss of a loved one no matter how many arms or legs or fur they may have. What we can do is seek support and attempt to move forward with a heart grateful for having someone that makes saying goodbye so hard.
If you are feeling suicidal please do not hesitate to call 800-273-8255. There is no need to suffer alone.
Rev. Russell Elleven, DMin, VLCE is a 2013 Main Street Vegan Academy graduate and Unitarian Universalist minister who serves as chaplain to the Unitarian Universalist Animal Ministry. He hosts a monthly support group for those who have lost a beloved animal companion and offers individual support to those in need. Learn more at www.AnimalChaplain.net and connect on Instagram @animalchaplain.