Growing Up With Pet Loss: by Mandi Beckmann

rat and personWhen I was in first grade, I had to say goodbye to my very first pet. Pinky was a tiny white rat and I loved her with every ounce of my 7-year-old heart.  I still clearly remember the day at school when my mom came to my classroom, led me out into the hallway and gently told me how Pinky had passed away. I don’t remember her exact words, or how I reacted in that moment, but she tells me how worried she was because I seemed to shut down rather than grieve “normally.”  It’s not that I didn’t care, but there wasn’t the outward reaction she was expecting. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I came to my parents crying because I missed Pinky. At that time, I was a child; I didn’t intuitively feel like there was anything wrong with the way I was processing the loss of my friend, because no one had told me that there was a right or wrong way to feel. But I realize now how it must have been uncomfortable for my parents to experience with me, seeing me only slightly upset and then suddenly being faced with an outpouring of grief weeks later. And to this day, I am so thankful that they allowed me time to grieve the way I needed to, without dictating how I should be feeling or reacting; that experience laid the foundation for my understanding of the way I grieve now. I have loved and lost many friends since then, and each experience is just as heartbreaking as the next, in its own way. But learning that there is no right way to grieve at such an early age is a lesson that stayed with me into my adult life, and has shaped my views as I begin my career in veterinary medicine.

Fast-forward 14 years later and as a veterinary student, I was surprised at my classmates’ responses when I told them that I would be starting a job at an in-home end-of-life care practice as a Client Support Specialist. They asked me why I would want a job that is so sad all the time, whether I would cry on the phone with clients, and why wouldn’t I rather do something else with my summer. I wasn’t sure how to respond to them, but after being a part of the MN Pets team for a summer, I would share with them the discussion that I had with one of our veterinarians during one of my ride-along experiences. We were talking about the emotional differences in being the pet owner at a euthanasia appointment versus being the veterinarian, aside from the obvious sense of personal loss. She described to me this sense of peace that she finds with her work because she knows in her heart she is relieving suffering. At MN Pets we often say that in-home euthanasia can be one of the kindest gifts you can give your pet, but I also truly believe it is a gift to yourself and your loved ones. Being in your own home removes the elements of shame or guilt or judgment, freeing each family member to express their grief in whatever way feels most natural. Minimizing that guilt we feel as pet owners helps us come closer to that sense of peace and relief that our animal is no longer suffering, and puts us on the road to healing.

In our culture, pet ownership is an almost universal experience. But we rarely stop to acknowledge that because of this fact, pet loss and the grief that follows is also universal. Recognizing this helps debunk the outdated stigma that it’s “just a pet” and helps us move toward a future where losing a friend is recognized as just that. It also encourages empathy for all different ways of grieving. My early experience was an invaluable chance for understanding, thanks to my parents’ patience, and I think that the story of my very first grief journey can actually be a comforting one, encouraging parents who are facing pet loss with their children: learning to grieve your own way is healthy. There is no one way to grieve, even for each individual. Young children can and do understand their grief experience as long as you let them and support them in their journey. And most importantly, grieving together may help you heal as much as it helps your child.

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