How long should you wait to replace a pet that dies?

QUESTION: How long should you wait to replace a pet that dies?

Don: Joining me in answering this question is Debi Frankle, long-time grief recovery counselor.

So Debi, how long? 

Deb: It takes time for your heart to be really ready to open to a new and different pet.Everyone is different, but it is important to feel complete with the emotional relationship you had with the pet you have just lost. 

If you are not really ready to move on, you run the risk of "replacing" your last pet with the new one, and you will be hanging onto something from the past pet. You will miss out on enjoying the uniqueness of your new pet. You will be stuck in emotional pain.

Don: I remember when my dad built one of the first riding lawn mowers in the early1960's, he made a seat especially for my loyal friend, Spot, to ride on with me to mow the yards. When I was around nine, Spot became too old ride, and I wished I had a younger dog. When he died in an auto accident, I felt so guilty, thinking that I had betrayed my best friend and companion. Within the next few days I found a young stray dog and adopted him. I remember feeling so surprised that I did not have the same feelings for him as I did for Spot. To top it off, he was so young and mischievous that he wouldn't stay still enough to ride on the tractor with me. I was so sad and disappointed about the new, younger dog. So, I can relate to what you are saying: that rushing to get away from the natural emotional process of the pain of the loss sets you up for even more misery. When you prematurely start a new relationship with a new pet you may feel more pain than you had with the original loss. Here I am, 51 years later, still feeling guilty about wanting Spot to die.

Deb: The guilty part is really about something that you wished you would have done differently. It might even feel like you caused Spot’s death by having that thought. Grief Recovery work releases you from the influence of that thought and helps you see the new animal for what it is as opposed to what was expected from the past pet.

Don: You are talking about regrets. 

Deb: Every pet invites a different and unique relationship. To get unstuck from the emotional pain of losing your previous pet, you must come to terms with any regrets you have about the end of your pet’s life. Do you wish you had done anything differently? Perhaps you wish the vet had done things differently. Maybe you worry that you didn't bring your pet to the vet in time, that you left him alone at vet, had no idea he was going to die and left things undone. These regrets reverberate in a griever's heart and keep you from feeling at peace with the loss. The "wouldas, couldas and shouldas” keep you emotionally preoccupied and unable to really whole-heartedly welcome any new and different pet into your life. When a griever takes the time to come to terms with the loss by facing the emotional pain that is there, you can then open your heart to a new pet in a new way.

All pet owners know the joy a pet brings to our lives. Loving a pet can be the closest we get to unconditional love and positive regard. When I come home, my dogs put on a parade just for me. They are always thrilled to see me, greet me, and be with me, and they lift my spirits, no matter what kind of day I have had. It’s so important to acknowledge that unique something that our lost pet brought to us that can never be replicated. Then we will be ready to accept and love someone new.

Don: So our personal timeline of when to buy a new pet is greatly influenced by the degree of unconditional love and acceptance that the lost pet provided for us in their lifetime. Different pets will leave a different hole in our hearts.

Deb: I am often asked why the death of a particular pet has a more traumatic impact than the death of a dad, mother, or best friend. Your grief timeline is greatly influenced by the role this particular pet played in your life. People often say, "I shouldn’t be so upset, it was just a bird or a dog or a cat." It is very important to admit and understand that these relationships with pets are very important and make a huge impact on our emotional lives. Being aware of this one element helps to have patience in giving everyone time to deal with the loss of a pet before another one is chosen.

Don: For a child born into a home with an existing pet, that specific pet is the only one they have ever known.

Deb: And, has often been their best friend. That pet knows all of that kid’s secrets. Knows all of that kid’s fears. One woman reported that her dog helped her through her father's rages and alcoholism. When she was 8 years old, her dog had be moved and kept at a ranch, and they would go to visit him on weekends. Then, for several weekends they didn't go, and on the next trip to visit, the dog came running up to her. She was confused and said to the adults, "this isn't Spot." They said, "Yes, this is Spot." She said that it wasn't and cried. Finally she said, "His spots are in the wrong place." They had secretly replaced the original Spot when he unexpectedly died. They hoped that it wouldn't upset her. They had spent six weeks looking for the perfect replica of the dog and even trained the dog to do all the tricks that they knew she would expect.

Don: So it wasn't that they were out to deceive her to hurt her. Out of a misplaced sense of care they were trying to spare her the pain of her loss.

Deb: Unfortunately, she now had this other loss, this loss of trust in the adults who she had to depend on. She couldn't trust that they were going to tell her the truth. They finally did, which was good.

Don: But the truth of it was that the adults not only didn't want her to feel her pain, they didn't want to feel their own pain. They didn't want to feel their own pain that came with telling her about her real dog's death.

Deb: They were trying to protect her from a broken heart, as well as their own. They meant well. That is what is so confusing about "just go get another one." They put her in a position of doubting her own sense of what was real and what wasn't. No matter what they said or did, her body knew that wasn't her Spot. Their misguided attempts to handle the pain made it worse.

Don: What causes the pain in grief?

Deb: The loss of hopes and dreams. The loss of the expectation that the animal is going to be with us forever. Many times our pets have unconditionally carried us through difficult challenges: illness, divorce, tragedy, and misery.

Don: Many of us, especially children, use pets as a confidante, sharing our innermost secrets, wishes, and feelings with that pet. So, when that pet dies, what is the first thing we should do?

Deb: Memories of a pet’s final days often get stuck in your awareness. It is common to relive the experience over and over to figure out what could have been done differently. It is important to remember the entire experience of this special pet. When I work with a family I have each member tell the entire story out loud of what this animal meant in their life. When did your pet join the family? How did you come up with a name? What was his personality? What special tricks could he do? What did you love most about him?

Don: So, as soon as possible, start an out loud conversations about the immediacy of what happened but also get to the whole life of the pet and its impact on you and the family.

Deb: Yes, this helps to stop the tortuous inner imaginary conversations in your head that loop endlessly around and around causing more and more pain. Telling the whole story helps work with the feelings that are there.

Don: What do you do with the feelings?

Deb: Sometimes apologies need to be made out loud. Sometimes there are things you need to forgive the animal for. Sometimes there are emotions--positive and negative--that need to be expressed that are being held back. Taking action in these three areas, apology-forgiveness-expression, begin to relieve the pain of the loss. The apology of not noticing how badly the pet was doing right before they died. Forgiveness about the many good shoes that got chewed up. Expression of the good stuff and the hard stuff. These actions help the pain to pass.

When my dear golden retriever died, I thought I was ready for a new dog. When we got her home, in tears the first thing I said to my husband was, "This isn't my dog!"  Grief hits us in the way that it really is, not the way we want it to.

Don: Talking about my dog Spot earlier, still brought a tear to my heart and a lump in my throat. People often come to counseling and when speaking of a loss say, "oh, but I am done grieving that loss. A few minutes later tears start coming as we openly talk about the regrets, resentments and unexpressed emotions.  No matter what we think, grief happens the way it does in its unique way with each person.

Deb: The apology piece comes in when we think about all the things we wished we had known. Our animals can’t tell us, "Hey, I am having a side ache here." Many times we have to guess when and when not to take a pet to the vet. Grievers can be very angry with the doctor for not knowing or catching things earlier. Even if we logically know that there was no way to know that doesn't speak to our emotional heart. The apology is often addressing the regret that the heart feels, not necessarily what logic dictates we should feel.  

Don: Unless the heart level is addressed, the pain continues. So on the heart level your forgiveness of the dog eating all the good shoes and the apology that you didn't find out in time are part of the action steps of grief recovery.

Deb: What you do with "I wish I would have" you offer up, "I am so sorry that I didn't." From your heart. "I just couldn't stand to see you in such pain." By acknowledging it, out loud, I stop just carrying it around in my head and hurting in my heart. I get it out and when someone with an open non-critical heart hears it, the pain just starts going down. I become more grounded and complete.

Don: You start feeling like yourself again.

Deb: Yes, you feel more ready to introduce a new animal to the house.  When my new dog was there it was clear that it wasn't my old dog, but I could see the opportunity with my new friend.

Don: Let's return to our question: How long should I wait until I replace my pet?

Deb: So, here is the key: it's a trick question. I say, it isn't about replacing the lost pet. It's about being ready to add a new animal to your home and your life. If you are still asking the question from the perspective of "replacing," you are not ready . . . yet.

Don: So the test question you ask yourself with emotional honesty is: Am I trying to replace my pet at this time, or am I adding a new animal to my home and life with an open heart? Am I ready to see this pet and what it will actually need, especially if it is a puppy or a kitten, or am I still looking at a new pet in the emotional shadow of the pet that I have lost. Barney, the dog I quickly adopted to replace old Spot, was wild and neurotic. He chased cars and would get so obsessed on a car that he ran into telephone poles head on. Spot was more of a smart and patient dog that rode with me with ease. Barney couldn't stay on the tractor seat much less ride with me. I couldn't let Barney out in the front yard or he would be killed, not by a car but by a pole! I grew to love Barney, but he had a long shadow he lived in with me. It hurt more once I realized what I had done instead of waiting as we have spoken of today.

Deb: It doesn't mean you can't recover from replacing a pet, it just means you have more pain to deal with and more troublesome situations to handle. When you wait to introduce a new pet and take the actions of grief recovery, the outcome will be a happier one for all involved.