Opening My Heart Again After Pet Loss

Following the death of three, beloved, 4-legged family members within a year, I was left with a house full of silence. 

Empty dog and cat beds throughout the house.  Beloved toys.  Special food dishes.  And no enthusiastic greeters when I returned from errands or the barn.

Cat sitting next to statue of a cat
Zoë: 04.26.2004 – 10.29.2019

Zoë, my 15yr old dilute torti, rescued from PetSmart as part of an SPCA blitz, had my heart at her first squeaky meow.  She was euthanized after a long illness, at the end of October 2019.

Lily Clementine, my beautiful 11yr old Golden Retriever, my constant companion, was rescued from Golden Rescue – not sure who rescued whom to be honest.  Anyone who met Lily, adored her.  Her death, while a beautiful euthanasia (which literally means “good death”) was performed by Dr. Erica Dickie, Hospice Vet, on September 13, 2020.   This left me gutted.  

Golden retriever
Lily Clementine: 09.07.2009 – 09.13.2020
Black cat in flower bed
Shady: 12.17.2005 – 11.18.2020.

Shady, my 16yr old short-haired feline, tried valiantly to help me cope with the loss of Lily, but she too was grieving.  Out of nowhere, and within two short months of Lily’s death, she would also need a good death, as an aggressive cancer stole her from me.  

 They were everywhere, and yet nowhere…

The house had been quickly silenced after years of precious activity: letting them all “in” and  “out”  a thousand times a day, cleaning dirty paws, vacuuming endless hair balls, cleaning litter boxes, changing water bowls, snuggling late at night, waking to one or another of them staring at me to get up in the morning, feeling them rub against my leg, jumping on my lap while watching tv, tripping over toys, etc. etc.  I looked after them, and they looked after me.  A perfect caretaking loop if ever there was one.  They were such an intricate part of who I was and how I lived my life – sound familiar?

And, pffft, suddenly all of my girls were gone.

Woman hugging golden retreiver

As a Pet Loss Grief Specialist, I am often asked, “How do you know when you are ready to open your heart again?  Aren’t I really being unfaithful to the memory of fill in the name and the bond that we shared?”

There is, of course, no straightforward answer to the first question.  Everyone’s grief, including mine as no-one gets a free pass, needs to be processed; that is, they need to experience the shock, perhaps disbelief and denial, anger, possible alienation and distancing, guilt, depression, and finally,  reach a place of resolution.  It is all so individual when you know that you’re ready to share your heart again.

Perhaps better said, you will know that you aren’t ready.

 What I do know for certain is the answer to the second question, “Aren’t I really being unfaithful to the memory of fill in the name and the bond that we shared?” 

A resounding “no”. 

Woman pressing face against black horse

Shady, my 16yr old short-haired feline, tried valiantly to help me cope with the loss of Lily, but she too was grieving.  Out of nowhere, and within two short months of Lily’s death, she would also need a good death, as an aggressive cancer stole her from me.  

“We, and here I am talking about “animal people”, have an enormous, if not boundless, capacity to nurture and love.”
— Colleen Rolland, BA, MA, PGRS

Each one brings different things to love about him, or her, and what they bring out in you.  Why should we put up boundaries around that by limiting the number of pet relationships that we share?  Would our previous loves want us to be unhappy or lonely after they died?  Should we purposely not rescue another animal because of an undeserved, and self-inflicted sense of guilt of the unconditional love that was once shared with another?

Surely not.

We, animal people, are excellent caregivers and therefore deserve to find, and feel, love again with another animal companion.  I believe in my heart that Zoe, Shady and especially my perfect Lily, would want me to experience that unique happiness that we all shared throughout the years we spent together. 

Add to that, the fact that so many animals need our care, protection and love.

And here’s the real kicker. It would be a tragedy not to pursue the happiness that another relationship would bring, even though we go into it with our eyes wide open knowing that we will be gutted again, when that cycle of life comes to an end. 

Rather than fear it and be saddened by it, we should re-frame it to view it as one of the very best gifts that life can offer.  An unconditional love with an animal companion. 

Brilliant, really.

two cats on a stairwell

And so, here are my two new loves.

Seamus, with the wee moustache, and Micky, with the dancing eyes and dash of devil thrown in. It didn’t take long for them, even though they had been feral, to trust me and become amazingly affectionate. Seamus the shy one of the two, will come running from wherever he is in the house when I call, and Micky, the brave, is to be found on the dishwasher door when opened for loading dishes, in the washing machine as clothes are taken out to be put in the dryer, and yes, even cozying up to my 6-foot cactus.

Cat on a stairwell
Seamus
Cat on a stairwell
Micky

Yes, I am blessed with two new friends to love and make the house dance again with joy and the reckless abandon of kittens with the zoomies.

Be well and love your animals.

Colleen Rolland, BA, MA, PGRS

Colleen is a Pet Loss Grief Specialist and founder of Pet Bereavement Services. After a 23-year career in an executive management position, honing her people skills with both colleagues and clients, Colleen made a decision to pursue a very different career path – one that would enable her to combine her two passions, animals and people, in a very unique manner and help others at the same time. Since 2014, she has been supporting individuals and families through the loss of their animal companion/s. She also worked closely with Dr. Wallace Sife, an American pioneer in the pet loss support industry, and founder of The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement. She has served as a member of the APLB Board of Directors since 2014, as Deputy Trainer of their Pet Loss Grief Counsellor program (2014 – current), and is their current President.

Black and white photo of woman and Golden retriever