The first rule of grieving is that there are no rules.
Companion-animal-loving Pastor and Animal Advocate Ginny Mikita makes this clear to the people who gather each month at the West Michigan Pet Loss Support Group hosted at Heaven at Home’s cozy quarters on Monroe Avenue.
“It’s important to experience grief in whatever fashion it manifests. We need to set aside the idea there is one right way to grieve or certain feelings that are correct and instead give ourselves the grace to feel what we’re feeling without judgment,” said Mikita.
Mikita’s life-long love of animals led her first to law school at Notre Dame where she sought to represent the interests of animals, and later to the ministry, where she sought to help humanity foster love for all creatures great and small. Today you might find her donning her pastoral robes at a Blessing of the Animals ceremony or using her law degree to help the health-care industry navigate palliative care among humans. Whichever role she’s playing, the themes involve compassion and community, two things that benefit those grieving the deaths of their companion animals.
The Power of Group Support
“Sharing feelings in the safe space created by a support group can be the most powerful healing experience for people. It is healing to receive affirmation that others have experienced or are experiencing what you’re experiencing,” Mikita said.
For example, it’s not uncommon for the grief experienced over the loss of a pet or companion animal to be a harder road than grieving the loss of a relative. This is partly because society “supports” the grieving of a human loss through time off work, community care and commiseration. It can also be due to the rarity of the kind of innocent, unconditional love proffered by companion animal. Losing a pet can feel like losing a young child.
“It’s a disenfranchised loss…No one shows up at the door with a casserole. Work colleagues sometimes don’t fully understand it; there are few employers who include the loss of a companion animal in their bereavement policies,” Mikita said.
Grief can also become more complicated due to associations between the companion animal and another person. For example, a widow whose pet dies may also experience a resurgence of grief over her spouse as well because the animal was the remaining connection to their life together, Mikita said.
A support group can also help process unexplored grief, and help participants understand their behaviors and feelings are not unique. Rather, they are quite common. Whether someone is sleeping with his dog’s blanket, having vivid dreams or a spiritual sense of her companion animal’s presence, or purging the house of all reminders of their pet, they learn that such things are “normal” and examples of what Mikita calls “universal expressions of how people deal with grief.”
They also learn to be patient with the rollercoaster of emotions and the triggers that blindside them.
“One of the things that can happen in a group setting is there are often people at every stage of grieving, so it can help to see there is light at the end of the tunnel. Over time the impact lessens, but our hearts emerge a little more tender,” Mikita said.
Guilt Is a Common – And a Not-Very-Productive Emotion
In the pet loss support group, another commonality is a sense of guilt over having made the decision to euthanize a companion animal, no matter how clearly necessary it was.
“People tend to find guilt in anything they do or don’t do. They may think they waited too long or didn’t wait long enough, ” Mikita said.
She reminds participants they did the best they could in the moment and encourage them not to second-guess themselves now.
“You are here because you are grieving your animal profoundly. All the efforts you made during his/her lifetime were done so because you loved your companion animal deeply,” she said.
The Importance of Self-Care
Taking care of yourself during the grieving process is vital. That means more than getting adequate sleep, nutrition and the “doctors” of fresh air, water and exercise, as coined by Mariel Hemingway and Bobby Williams. That also means exercising self-compassion and surrounding yourself with people who “get it.”
“Extend yourself the grace you would extend a dear friend going through something similar…Be selfish in a good way,” Mikita said.
Ways to Memorialize Your Pet or Companion Animal
In addition to community and self-care, Mikita feels that memorializing your companion animal is an important part of the healing process. In the support group, participants are invited to bring a picture of their pet, a journal and an open heart.
Mikita feels many different acts of commemoration have therapeutic value. Here are a few of the myriad examples:
- Have a commemorative paw print or jewelry made
- Retrieve cremains in a commemorative urn
- Create a photo album, scrapbook or video
- Take cremains to a special place such as a dog park where you had spent some time together (if you plan to spread the cremains, please secure permission from the municipality or other governing body or land owner)
- Plant a tree, donate a park bench, or otherwise make a contribution in memory of your pet or companion animal
- Have an intentional ceremony or ritual to formally acknowledge your loss
“I’m a proponent of actual ceremony. I think there’s something really healing in ceremony. Even if it’s private, with just your children, where you each say something about what you miss most about your companion animal, it’s effective,” Mikita said. Mikita has hosted collective pet memorial services at Fountain Street Church and other locations to help folks process grief.
When Is It Time to Consider a New Pet or Companion Animal
People struggle with knowing whether they’re ready to look for another companion animal or whether they’re just trying to fill a hole in their heart. Mikita views this to be a highly personal question, and counsels people to listen to their gut.
“Don’t overthink things,” she said.
She recalls the day she ran into a former participant in the Pet Loss Group who’d had a particularly difficult time the year prior, and who wondered if she could ever love another pet. The woman was ecstatic. She had just welcomed a new dog into her life, one with a completely different personality than her dog who had died.
That’s the power of community to heal one another.
“When you are surrounded by people who get it, there can be such profound healing,” Mikita said. “All I am doing is holding the sacred space to create the conditions for the possibility.”
The West Michigan Pet Loss Support Group meets the second Tuesday of each month from 6:30 – 8 p.m. at Heaven at Home, 1530 Monroe Ave. NW, Grand Rapids MI. All are welcome. Please RSVP with Group Facilitator Ginny Mikita at 616.460.0373 by noon on the day the group meets.