Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The first time I experienced pet loss...

The first time I experienced pet loss I was eight. My dog died. 

He was only about six months old, and he was my first dog. 

As the oldest child, I was given a puppy. My dad brought him home one Friday night in the middle of winter. The first time I saw him, my dad was carrying him past the kitchen window, holding him at arms length because he’s vomited all over himself in the car.

He was christened Digger when we saw him digging his first hole in the garden.

I don’t remember much of our relationship. I guess we would have become better friends if time had allowed. I only have one or two photos of him and none where you can see his face.

He contracted what in those days was called “galloping biliary.” We discovered later that it was Parvo, but back then, there wasn’t an inoculation for it. He was sick so he’d been taken to the vet. Instead of coming home, he had to stay overnight. The vet called my folks the next day and told them that  he’d died.

They told me that night when they got home from work.

“Coll. Digger died while he was at the vet today.”

I remember feeling like I should have been more sad. But I can’t remember feeling any strong emotions. He was the first dog who had died in our family. We had two other dogs: Pépe and Crumpet and both of them lived well into old age. So the idea of having a young dog die was quite shocking. I don’t think my parents even knew what to make of that. 

What I do remember was going to school the next day. 

When I think about it now, the strongest memory from that event was the feeling of isolation. I was different to the other kids. My dog had died. I had changed. 

I doubt I could articulate those emotions then, but the feeling that something had changed was strong. I have a vivid memory of standing alone under the monkey apple trees and watching the other kids playing. I felt separate from them because of my experience. 

Of course, I looked the same on the outside. No visible signs of distress. No crying. We belonged to a farming community and animals died all the time. It was the early 80s. 

I don’t remember anyone crying because their pet had died.

Feeling isolated

The feeling of isolation that we experience after our animal friend has died is an aspect of grief that is often overlooked. It’s caused by the shock we are feeling, as our minds are trying to integrate our experience and make sense of it. 

Having experienced that feeling of isolation each time I’ve lost an animal friend, it no longer surprises me. I’m quite familiar with it... 
  • I know it will pass in time. 
  • I know that it could resurface when I’m in a social situation when I experience a sudden pang of grief. 
  • I know that I’ll only feel it when I’m around certain people –– those who either don’t know that my animal companion has died, or those who don’t understand the depth of my connection and relationship with that animal. 
  • I know that I’m experiencing this emotion because I’m seeing myself in relation to other people. 
  • I know that when I feel safe and understood I can let my guard down and that feeling of isolation dissipates. 

This sense of isolation is therefore quite useful. 

It’s a way of helping us feel safe in situations where a careless comment about pet loss could cause us distress. 
It creates a bubble around us –– it’s like invisible padding. We can focus inwards, and notice how we feel and tune into what we need to feel comforted.

I call it The Bubble.

I used it a lot after my mare died. The shock was so extreme that the bubble stayed in place for almost a year. My mouth would work and respond to questions from people, I could have a conversation, but I was detached from reality. I could retreat into my bubble when I was sad and my bubble provided some cushioning for my broken heart. 

It didn’t dissipate any of my grief, but it was comforting to know that it was there and doing it’s job.

Do you remember losing your childhood animal friend? Do you remember how you felt? Are there any emotions from that time that you still need to process? Perhaps you can now, as an adult. You could give yourself the gift of gentle healing if that wasn’t available to you as a youngster. 

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