In the aftermath…Navigating the empty nest that is pet loss
With Alexa Linton and Laura Bird (One Spirit)
Last February in Perth, Australia, at a workshop based on my book, Death Sucks: A Straight-Up Guide to Navigating Your Pet’s Final Transition, two amazing women arrived from Singapore to steal away all of our hearts. And in the process, we learned of Hope, a dog that had been a transformational whirlwind in their lives, the light of their life, the inspiration for their careers, and the focus of their last several years. Her care, her needs, and her very presence were all very big. Hope was, during our time together at the workshop, in the last months of her life before making her final transition. These two women had come to the workshop to be with their grief, to understand how to let go, and to prepare themselves for the inevitable. She had been on the verge of this final transition for quite some time, in the space I often refer to as the peaks and valleys. It wasn’t until several months after they returned home that she finally expressed her readiness to let her very well-used dog body go. With the help of a dear friend and veterinarian, these two women said goodbye to Hope in the most beautiful way imaginable, showering her in love and blessings, rose petals and prayer flags. Hope, a rescue that had seen the worst of the human race, parted this world knowing a depth of love that many of us only dream of.
While on a call with these same women last week, preparing for a Death Sucks course in Singapore this upcoming February, my friend Laura Bird asked how things are feeling since Hope’s passing. Their answer was mutual. They shared the things they had been exploring in her legacy. And they also shared their unpreparedness for the aftermath, for the titanic-sized hole the loss of Hope had created in their lives. From that space, they asked me if I might put my pen to paper to share more about how to navigate this particular leg of the journey. As you can imagine, and as evidenced by this very post, I agreed and asked for help from Laura to explore this essential topic.
As animal lovers, especially in a time where many are choosing to have animals in lieu of children, the role that our animals play in our lives and the space they fill is, well, massive, incomprehensible, at times, and at least for a time, un-fillable with any other being or thing. We have, thank the Lord, for the most part, exited the time where animals were seen as lesser beings and as “just a _____ (enter species name here)” and entered a space where they are more widely understood as the teachers, friends and family that they are. With this necessary shift comes unexpected challenges. The challenge of a lifespan that is substantially less than our own. The challenge of health care that is entirely out of pocket. The challenge that is some rather obvious communication barriers. The challenge that is others just not getting it – not comprehending the depth of our love and the depth of our loss. The challenge of being the one that has to make the final call. The challenge of loving another being so much that losing them feels like losing ourselves.
Our grieving process, unless we are very careful, can easily be stunted by the judgements of others or our perception of them. Our decisions as our animals stewards can be challenged and doubted. Our inner knowing can feel shaky or non-existent. And the weight we feel of holding a life in our hands, that is a weight that very few of us enjoy carrying.
So how do we meet the aftermath, this vast deeply challenging space beyond this life-changing and too-short relationship, with some semblance of grace, dignity and flow? Is there a strategy to navigating the empty space, the days, weeks, months, even years, after the final moments and breaths of our furry bestie have passed? I’m happy to share, that even though Laura and I can’t give you the whole of this puzzle, I believe that we can shed light on a few key pieces that will strengthen your ability to locate the rest.
Before we dive in, take a moment to bring your focus onto your breath and back into your body. The body, at these hard times, craves presence, desires awareness. Our initial impulse is the opposite, a need to flee the feeling space, to turn away from embodiment and presence within the heart, preferring to stay in our heads. I get it. It’s uncomfortable in there, especially when we’re navigating the aftermath and the emotional onslaught that so often accompanies it. I get it. And still. It is your salvation, this precious body of yours. It appears like a dragon’s den, but it is a refuge if you can learn how to be with it, to stay with it. We’ll get into that more in a moment. For now, breath. And breathe some more. Into the belly, into the pelvis, into the spine, into the ribs, into your heart.
My dear friend and animal translator, Laura Bird, who has so graciously helped me tackle this loaded subject in this post, likes to call this whole breathing thing, and anything that helps us return to ourselves, neutralizing. I like that. It has a certain ring to it. And it the perfect starting point to the very first stop on our roadmap of the aftermath. Here are our go-to steps (and this is an unfinished list – we want your contributions too!) to navigate this emotional time…
1)Find yourself again.
Yes, you. The centre of you – you know the place, when you can feel the presence of your two feet on the earth, when you can feel a stability and support in your spine, when you travel inwards and not in a escapism kind of way, but in an exploratory way, in a noticing, curious way. In support of this essential leg of the journey, I’ve included as many of my favourite resources as I could find. Try them out, find the one that works for you, use it daily.
2) Find a journal.
Get centred first, then set the intention to find the most just-right journal for you, just for this. Just for the aftermath and the honouring of your amazing animal and the tears and the process. Let this journal jump out at you from the shelves and fill you with oh-there-you-are. Sometimes retail therapy just hits the spot. You may even find one with a plain cover that you decide to collage with your pet’s photos or paint or draw on, or a blend of creativity. While you’re at it, get yourself a pen that you love too. One that just coasts over the page, one that pours out ink evenly and smoothly, in reflection of your heart. Because you are going to be pouring your heart onto these pages with said pen.
3) Call in the troops.
Sometimes space is the best. Agreed. But, sometimes, it just sucks. Sometimes you need your peeps around you. You need your therapist and your body workers and your lovers and your sisters and mommas. This would be one of those moments. We are a social critter struggling with the emptiness that is the aftermath of a tremendous loss. More emptiness will probably not be your answer, it might be, but probably not. But there is a caveat here. These peeps need to have your back, they need to love you and be willing to hold some space in your process. Not all the space, maybe just a little, but they have to have some emotional bandwidth. You are, for the moment, a bit fragile. This is normal. And important. But it requires loving support. It begs for hugs and sitting in silence and dancing together and drinking tea and eating chocolate and quiet, deep conversations. You’ll know who. Your biggest task here is to reach out – us humans, we hate asking for help, especially when we’re struggling, and most especially when we’re struggling with something that many fellow humans don’t fully get. But we need to. It’s that simple. We were not meant to walk this walk on our own. Let yourself be loved, supported and wrung out during this time by the ones that you trust.
4) Go to nature.
This earth of ours, she holds treasure and healing. Don’t forget to return to your source on the regular. And take your fab new journal with you. Sit with the trees. Tune into the birds. SInk into the landscape. Remember your part in all of it.
5) So, that journal of yours…
Flip it open and get cozy. Cozy may mean many tissues handy and much chocolate ready. Remember what I said about pouring your heart out? Start out simple. Get neutral to start. Your first question to yourself… How am I doing right now? Fine doesn’t cut it. Dig a little deeper. Scan your body, connect with your heart and your breath. How am I doing?
Here are the rules of your journal – no rules, but… open expression, freedom to blow a gasket or sob until you’re empty or occupy an entire page with expletives.
When you’re ready, which may be days or weeks (or longer), write a love note. Actually two of them. The first is to your animal, beginning with Dear ________ (animal’s name). Allow it to flow, through the channels of gratitude, honouring, remembering, acknowledging and expressing yourself. The second is from your animal to you, beginning with Dear ________ (your name). Breathe deep, let your mind relax, and let the words flow (this one might require tissues and you might surprise yourself with what you write).
6) Create a sacred commemoration.
Maybe building a shrine is too much, but having that special photo blown up and framed, planting something beautiful in the garden in their favourite sunny spot or even having a plaque made to go on their favourite tree in the paddock can help you focus the positive energy they leave in your home. Creating a space in your home or garden where they are honoured, remembered and given pride of place is a vital part of making sure they are not gone from your life symbolically, even if physically they’re no longer there. Their presence will help the grieving process and make sure your most precious memories of them are the ones that are recirculated through your consciousness. It will also transform the way we see them in our lives and elevate them to the place of reverence they deserve. Take the time you need to really think about the most beautiful aspects of them that you wish to capture and commemorate. You may even wish to make a donation to the animal shelter they came from or another animal charity in their honour. And yes building a shrine may be too much but don’t be afraid to light a candle in those spaces for them when you need to.
7) Transform your space and make space.
When we change the environment we transform ourselves and in the time after the loss of a loved one we are going through change. Once death has come, and the grief or lost feeling afterwards, then comes rebirth. This is a new chapter and things will be different. Moving furniture, carefully and lovingly letting go of the things that are no longer useful now that your pet has gone is a transformation of energy. Certainly you need to feel ready to do this, but hoarding “things” can weigh you down and get in the way of the space needed to move forward. Our animals don’t live as long as we do because like all magical teachers and guides they can’t hold our hand for the whole journey. Just watch any movie where a guide and teacher transforms or activates a hero. Our animals are that to us and so inevitably there is that moment where they say to us, “You must go on without me. You have everything you need within you.”
That new chapter needs some space and letting go. By all means, keep a few special items and make sure you have created a commemoration, but clear the space and move the furniture a little to shift your perspective. Giving beds, blankets, bowls, rugs to an animal shelter or friends with animals that may benefit from them is a lovely gesture and one your pet would be proud of. As someone who has known first hand the gratitude of rescue animals, I know my pets have loved the idea that the wealth they accumulated in their luxurious time in our family might be shared with those in need or our extended family of animals. It may be a slow process or a big clear out, whichever feels right for you, but the space you create will let in the new.
8) Trust the process and be curious.
As Laura mentioned above, this may be a slow process, and not just the physical clearing involved. There is lots happening under the surface that we have no idea about, always, but even more so in the aftermath. Trust that. Things are happening, especially if you’re practicing neutrality and letting your emotions move. That process might look like a well-deserved holiday in a place you’ve been yearning to see, or a trip to your pet’s favourite place to scatter their ashes and remember their joy, or tying up loose ends, or starting that career move that you’d been promising them for years. Let the mystery unfold and stay curious.
9) Be open to sharing your love (when you’re ready)
You’ve got a whole lot of love to give – don’t be at all shocked if another wonderful being of the animal persuasion is sucked into your vacuum of love. I am still on the fence about whether our animals choose us or we choose our animals – I am leaning more and more towards a bit of both.
Here’s what I know. If you’ve got the love to give, you can never go wrong offering it up to another animal who is needing it – what a beautiful legacy to the animal that has passed on. Take the time you need, be with the aftermath and your sense of loss, and then, be open to the joy that animals bring into our lives.
I have a feeling Laura and I will be writing more on this subject! And we’re pretty excited to share that we have been brainstorming about an Alexa and Laura Podcast (more details on that to come) so we’ll definitely dive more into this there. If you currently navigating the aftermath, we send our love. It’s not an easy time – hold yourself with compassion and with gentleness. Know that you are not alone, and that we’d love to hear from you with questions and any suggestions for animal lovers going through the same process (email us here).
My book, Death Sucks: A Straight-Up Guide to Navigating Your Pet’s Final Transition, also has powerful tools and suggestions that can help you on your journey – you can order it on Amazon here.