The death of a beloved pet changes your life forever. As grief scholars Nancy Hooyman and Betty Kramer write in Living Through Loss, losing a loved one – whether animal or human – can challenge some of our deepest-held beliefs, including that we are safe from harm, that the world around us is predictable, and that bad things will not happen to us. To integrate the loss into our lives and move forward through our sadness, we must find meaning in the experience.
What is meaning making? It is the way that we come to understand a life event, but it is also more than that. Meaning making is living in a way that encompasses both the pain and joy of our experiences. It’s about moving forward with our lives in a way that lets us continue to grow while we honor the life that has been lost.
Meaning can be made in ways that are as individual as each of us. Hooyman and Kramer give some examples:
- Activism. Some people make meaning out of terrible events by working toward a shared cause. For example, many people choose to join the movement to ban breed-specific legislation to honor their cherished pup. Another common form of activism is in fundraising, volunteering, or fostering for a local animal rescue organization.
- Adjusting the lens from which you view the world. Maybe your dog Buddy taught you that there is great strength in approaching people you don’t know with love and acceptance. This can be incorporated into your life to honor his memory.
- Reconsidering your values and adjusting your life accordingly. After a loss, many people will choose to spend more time with family or work closer to home. Others might donate to local shelters or rescues who take in animals like our beloved friend.
- Reinterpreting the event to see the positives that have resulted from it. This “rose-colored glasses” approach is not meant to negate or ignore the event, but rather, to allow us to see its ripple effect on our lives, and in decisions we have made down the line.
- Cultivating a sense of appreciation for the world around us. Sometimes a profound loss can help us to see the beauty of seemingly insignificant things in our lives. We might appreciate the rich green of our cat’s eyes a little bit more, or recognize the way that a funny text or a hug from a friend lifts our mood and helps us feel loved.
- Creating a narrative or story. Telling the story of our pet’s life, whether verbally or in writing, can help us to process feelings after a loss. In addition, stories are created to be told! Sharing your pet’s story with trusted others can be an important part of healing.
Why is meaning-making important? Today, many grief and loss professionals believe that the process of creating meaning out of a loss helps us to move forward with our lives in a positive way. It helps us adapt to a new normal and embrace a forward-thinking view. Some argue that those of us who can incorporate a sense of meaning into our losses are healthier in the long run, both physically and mentally, than those of us who do not.
Finally, remember that grief operates on a different timetable for everyone, and is not a process that can be rushed. Grief is like a tide that approaches and recedes, and although the strength and timing of its waves will lessen over time, losses change us permanently. While it is important to create a sense of meaning around your loss over time, it is equally important to allow yourself to heal at your own pace.
“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to.”
~ Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler