Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Rituals as storytelling can help the grief process after the loss of a pet

We have few things in our collective culture that serve as markers in life. You know, those things that say that we've reached points in our respective journeys that are significant. In the broadest sense, aside from cementing our relationship with another human like with a wedding, the birth or welcoming of a new child or serving our country during war -- and for some in our culture, those situations never occur -- there really is little else that we feel compelled to mark as a rite of passage, aside from some cases, religious ones. 

Rituals and traditions are a natural part of the events that we do honor, and in our culture, I can see that we need more of that. Reclaiming rites of yore and establishing new ones would be especially helpful in navigating the bumpier times, enable us more solidly connect to members of the proverbial clubs that we're (sometimes unintentionally) initiated into and to navigate that new territory. Rituals demand that we engage in the act of noticing -- something that Ellen Langer has pioneered the discussion of -- as well as find the language (verbally and visually) to articulate meaning. They incorporate movement, too, which is especially important in rituals attached to loss. (Moving our bodies helps us move our minds and hearts through the mourning process.) They also help facilitate the very important mental movement from grief into mourning and that mystery of 'what will life be like going forward?'. It's all very much about storytelling, the core of ritual. 

Aside from helping to attach a sense of physicality to important events in our lives, rituals are closely tied to the idea of time. When we're grieving and mourning, our sense of time often feels skewed, and ritual helps us gain some equilibrium with it. It's also acts as a tether to the past, reminds of the present and helps us remember that there's a future. Rituals and traditions summon a sense of timelessness. 

Painful events, and there are many of them -- a death of a loved one, the loss of a job, losing a breast, a move cross-country from a place one feels bonded to, a relationship that dissolves, selling a business -- are tough because we don't know who we're supposed to be, other than strong enough to navigate it. So, in hushed tones, we slog through the emotions that invariably arise. Yet they're all part of our story, our collective stories. And we grieve to varying degrees when these things happen, even if we don't realize it, and then we mourn. We mourn the familiarity, the comfort, the identity what is attached to it has given us. There is that unsettling sense of uncertainty that accompanies it all. After all, there's the idea of a 'new you' unfolding.

But often, we don't ritualize losses, outside of a funeral for a human member of our tribe. And what happens when a pet dies? We often feel too shamed to express our grief then, let alone give that life event a marker. The truth is that we need to do that even more then. We need to acknowledge and honor our story with that pet with ourselves, discover the verbal and visual language to articulate it and for those who've earned the right to hear it, we need to share the story with them. This kind of storytelling not only enables us to express our own path of loss, grief and mourning, it invites others to convey theirs. The latter can be an incredibly rich and full experience as well. 

The ways that we ritualize the passing of our pet can be as vast and unique as our lives with them. 

Loss offers an opportunity to express emotions in unexpected ways

One family shared their recent experience of using ritual after Nico, their 17 year-old cat, passed away after complications from chronic kidney disease.

A sense of emptiness, even discombobulation is a common feeling amongst those I work with in Pet Loss and Grief Companioning.

Photo credit: Meghan Storey

"...there was just this sadness and also a kind of surreal-ness," said Meghan Storey, one of Nico's humans. The day after the family's vet helped her along, Storey walked into the house from work for the first time without her cat being there. The new normal became starkly visible.

"Like, logically you know what's happened. You were there. You brought her to the vet, you left without her... but it still doesn't seem to make sense. Yesterday there was a cat here, today there's an empty space. I walked in the door to this empty table and I'm guessing I cried. I felt this need to acknowledge that Nico had been here. It would seem wrong to just come in and make dinner like it was an ordinary day. This little furry life had come and gone and intersected with mine for quite a few years, and she had a beautiful spirit, and I couldn't just carry on like she hadn't existed."

I was kept me up to date on how things were going with Nico, and was in the loop as bigger decisions were made on her behalf. It wasn't easy time. But a couple days after Nico died, I got an email that exuded a radiance, a sense of peace. Remembering what she saw with regard to the death and funeral traditions belonging to one of her best friend's family, who happen to be Vietnamese Buddhist, an idea organically formed in Storey's mind. In the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition, setting up a small adorned shrine in the home with photos of the deceased loved ones is common, as is burning incense. And these loved ones are acknowledged on a regular basis, sometimes setting out favorite foods and other things that they loved.

She explained, "And so, I set to work putting together my own little tribute to Nico. I lit a few sticks of incense and a candle. I put out little dishes of different foods that she liked, and treats, and some milk and water. A couple of her toys. And it really helped. I felt like I was honouring her."

Photo credit: Meghan Storey
With Nico's ashes home where they belong, the ritual continues.

"Since then, I have been lighting a little candle for Nico most nights. I was comforted when we received Nico's ashes, and then the sympathy card with her paw print from the vet. I've set up a very small shrine on our mantle. That's just my way of remembering that Nico was here, and letting her know that we loved her and that her sweet little spirit is welcome to hang out here any time it wants."

Do what's meaningful and comfortable for you 

I had done a lot of intentional work beforehand to prepare for the passing of both my pets, who did so 8 months apart. They had benefit of going to peace at home, so I wasted no time in beginning the ritual practices, and in fact, I recommend it. My vet made clay impressions of their paws after they transitioned. I spent some hours alone with them at home to allow myself some time to feel any recoil from the day and clipped locks of fur from their vessels to be made into memorial art pieces and jewelry. After transporting them to the facility, the staff helped me tend to them, situating their vessels in their final resting boxes just so in preparation for private cremation. Spending that last bit of time with them, tending to them was incredibly powerful and cathartic, and though it's not something everyone would feel comfortable doing, I did and it's really good that the option is there for others. 

The things I did on those days, and what Nico's family did for themselves incorporated important elements: tangible objects, words, movement and meaningful, intentional activity that make rituals what they are. 

I've no doubt that because of the rituals, I was able to remember more details from those days, something that I really wanted to do, knowing how much of a blur they can be in the fog of grief.

I did other things, like set up small tribute tables for each of them, incorporating things that remind me of them or that belonged to them. I donated any leftover veterinary medications and pet food to local animal organizations. 

There was more stuff that I did, and still do as an active ritual, years later.

I keep a plush soccer ball of Gretchen's on my bed amongst the throw pillows and I see and pick it up and bop it around every morning or when I'm stressed. She loved sports balls of any kind, but especially soccer balls. In her geriatric years, she preferred softer options for her old teeth and one day at IKEA, I saw the perfect choice. Happiness ensued! I plant catnip every summer because I know Silver loved finding it in the yard -- it still makes me laugh to recall finding him ripping it out of its spot if I wasn't paying attention. 

Rituals spur the memories that we need to remind us, and in their own way are a form of effortless storytelling. And storytelling is something that we really need to get us through the bumpy periods in our lives, and to remind us to make each and everyday matter.

Lorrie Shaw is owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care support. She is also a Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion and a member of The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care and Pet Sitter International. She tweets at @psa2.

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