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Guest post by Sarah Chauncey
This is the second post in a three-part series. In the first post, l looked at how veterinarians are handling euthanasia during COVID-19.
Losing a beloved companion is a difficult experience at any time, but several factors come together to make it particularly devastating during COVID-19. From veterinarians handling euthanasias differently than usual to physical distancing requirements that keep us from hugging each other, circumstances are coming together that intensify the isolation many guardians feel after a loss even under normal circumstances. In addition, there is so much grief and loss in the world right now, and we’re all feeling some of that—loss of routine and familiarity, economic uncertainty, concern about loved ones, and of course, for many people, the loss of human loved ones to this awful disease. This collective grief weighs heavily on all of us and can make grieving the loss of a pet during COVID-19 even more challenging.
I’m not a grief counselor. What I can offer comes from my own experience of loss and other experiences of dealing with very intense challenges. If you’re grieving a loss right now, make sure you do whatever you can do to soothe yourself, within the restrictions all of us face right now. Below are some suggestions, but this certainly isn’t a definitive list.
Take time to say goodbye if possible
Because veterinarians are handling euthanasia differently during this time, it’s even more important to create a ritual to say goodbye before the euthanasia appointment. Unless your cat is in a medical crisis, try to create space in the last 24 hours to honor the bond you’ve had, to thank your cat, to reflect, to grieve and to say goodbye. In my experience, it can make all the difference between being able to accept the loss and being stuck in grief for a much longer time.
If you aren’t able to say goodbye in advance, be gentle with yourself. Try writing a letter to your cat, putting onto paper everything you wish you had said or done, or reminiscing about the good times. Getting your feelings out and onto the page can be helpful, especially in the absence of being able to receive in-person social support. If a letter doesn’t feel right to you, veterinarian Karen Fine has a helpful guide to writing your pet’s obituary. Whatever comes up for you, let it out.
Become as present as possible (over and over again)
See if you can focus on the sensations around you. Try the 5-4-3-2-1 practice: Name five things you can see, four things you can touch or feel physically, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. Bring yourself fully into your present environment, focusing on what is here right now. Staying fiercely present is one of the most helpful practices I’ve found for easing emotional distress.
You don’t have to know how you’re going to get through the rest of your life without your beloved companion. You don’t even have to know how you’re going to get through the pandemic, or this week, or today. Those are just concepts; the future doesn’t exist yet.
Show yourself compassion
I’ve written a lot about the importance of self-compassion. Notice the intensity of love you feel for your pet—because you still do, even now—and see whether you can show yourself some of that love. To the extent you’re able, treat yourself to a special meal, or a long walk in nature, or a bubble bath with a candle lit. Do whatever soothes you.
My favorite practice for extremely challenging times is to come back to the breath, over and over again. The breath is always there, wherever you are, in solitude or not. Focus all your attention on the breath. Place a hand on your abdomen or your heart and breathe into it. Acknowledge that you’re feeling pain.
I find it helpful to imagine my heart connected with all the other people around the world who are experiencing the same challenge. When I wash my hands, for example, I picture myself connected to all the other people around the world who are washing their hands to keep themselves and their loved ones safe and healthy. You are now part of a unique cohort of people grieving the loss of a pet. Imagining yourself as part of this group, linked to them through a shared pain of loss, and offer yourself some comfort.
Move your body
Exercise has multiple benefits, including helping us move from rumination in our minds to becoming present in our bodies. In my experience, exercise is also helpful in allowing grief to move through the body. Like all emotions, grief is energy that wants to be acknowledged and released. If you’re in an area where you can safely go outside and walk or run, do that. If your thoughts become overwhelming, try the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise from the previous section while you’re walking. This will help bring you back into the moment.
Other ways to get moving can be yoga, Pilates, jumping jacks, walking/running in place, dancing, or even just shaking your body like a rag doll. All of these have multiple benefits, though personally, I find cardio-type exercises more helpful for releasing anger, and meditative exercises more helpful for soothing sadness. Listen to your body. It knows what you need.
If you can’t bring yourself to exercise, don’t beat yourself up. Do whatever you need to do to get through this time.
Seek out nature, if possible
The benefits of spending time in nature are myriad and well-documented. When it comes to grief, one particular benefit stands out: Nature can help us to ruminate less. After the shock of loss, we often subject ourselves to second-guessing and worrying about whether we made the right decision. If you can, go outside where you can see plants and trees. We humans and the animals we love are expressions of nature, not separate from it.
If you are unable to get outside, focus as deeply as you can on a single plant in your home. Allow it to captivate your imagination and give you a brief respite from your thoughts.
If you can’t do any of these things, that’s okay. Allow whatever you’re feeling. Beating yourself up only makes you feel worse; it doesn’t accomplish anything useful.
Please know that you are not alone, even though your grief is unique to your cat. Approximately 15,000 domestic cats die of old age-related conditions every day in the United States alone (and roughly an equal number of companion dogs). That’s a huge amount of grief and loss, in the midst of a pandemic defined by grief and loss.
My heart breaks for all the people who are now grieving in solitude, without being able to even receive a hug. In a simpler time, it was possible to go see friends, receive hugs and consolation, distract ourselves with work. But now, the task is to face our grief physically alone, yet emotionally connected.
In Part 3, I’ll discuss ways you can reach out for support while self-isolating.
If you’ve lost a cat since the beginning of March 2020, please share what types of self-care helped you in the comments.
Sarah Chauncey is the author of P.S. I Love You More Than Tuna, an upcoming gift book for adults grieving their cat. She runs @morethantuna on Instagram and Facebook, “a celebration of nine lives,” and she started #tunatributes, a support community for people grieving their cat. She lives on Vancouver Island.