As I write this my feet are getting warm. Barney my Labrador likes to sleep on them while I work. I really enjoy this physical connection especially at this time of year when it’s a bit chilly. But a few years ago I would never have dreamt I would be a dog owner I was always a cat person. Tiger the tabby kitten arrived in the house when I was 4. I don’t remember life without him – we grew up together. He was a very special cat. He walked us to school – going as far as the crossing on the main road before sitting and watching us safely into the gates before going home. When I was poorly he would come and curl up quietly on the bed for company and he was my confident. I told him everything. All the secrets, hopes, dreams & hurts that I couldn’t tell Mum & Dad I whispered to his beautiful striped face.
For years he was my best friend. I didn’t make friends easily and was frequently bullied at school. Tiger helped soothe the pain. When I was 16 he was 12 and very old for a cat in those days. The day came when his health had deteriorated to the extent that my parents decided to have him put down.
I was devastated. Not only was this my best friend but I’d never experienced loss through death before. All my grandparents were gone long before I was born so this was a new and terrible experience for me; made worse because the soul I was used to confiding hurt to was the one that wasn’t there anymore. Reactions at school were pretty much as I expected. “oh that’s a shame – are you getting another one?”
This idea that when we lose something unique and valuable the immediate solution should be to replace it is one of the most harmful notions surrounding loss in our society. Yet this reaction is not confined to loss of a pet. How many times have you heard “oh well plenty more fish in the sea” when telling someone about a relationship breakup? Young widows will often be told “ah you’re young you can remarry”. For the receiver of this “wisdom “ the reaction is one of hurt and anger not relief. Most of us have been on the receiving end of this thoughtless cliché in one form or another but somehow, even though the concept is hurtful, it perpetuates.
Animals are unique individuals that love us almost unconditionally. As long as we look after their basic needs of food, water and shelter they’ll give unquestioning love in return – for longer than many human relationships last! They don’t criticise us or nag or have a raised eyebrow when we wear that old comfy jumper. A relationship with a pet can be the most important in someone’s life yet even in this so called nation of animal lovers when that pet dies and we’re bereft we get scant or no support.
Feeling lonely and missing the presence of the beloved pet many people rush out to replace the loss only to find they don’t love the new animal in the same way. Then they feel guilty for not loving the new pet. But of course it is impossible to replace a unique relationship – even if the new furry creature is physically identical – it has its own individuality and deserves to be loved in its own right.
By acknowledging the loss of a companion and allowing ourselves to grieve and say goodbye to them we can free ourselves to love again. What I love about the Grief Recovery Method is that it teaches us not to discriminate by type of loss. Pain is pain. It is felt at 100% intensity at the time of the pain. By following the actions described in the Grief Recovery Handbook I’ve not only completed the losses in my human relationships but my animal ones too, allowing me to open my heart and let Barney in.
The Grief Recovery Handbook by John W James and Russell Friedman can be brought online or found in many libraries. It is not in bookshops in the UK yet. Carole Batchelor is the director of Grief Recovery (UK) and can be contacted on 01234 862218. firstname.lastname@example.org
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