Humans and animals have been forming unbreakable bonds for centuries. From birds to reptiles to cats and dogs, they become our loved ones, our best friends, our family. When the time comes for them to cross over and go to the Rainbow Bridge, it’s devastating.
What happens when that pet is also an emotional support animal that helps their owner cope with a mental illness? An animal companion is a member of a person’s family. So, much like the death of a parent, sibling, spouse or dear friend, the grief over the loss of an animal companion can be overwhelming and even debilitating.
For a person with a mental illness, that loss can shake their entire world and flip it upside down. I know this because on Dec. 24, I found out that my beloved support dog Ella had a cancerous lump on her liver and cancer in her lymph nodes.
There was nothing that could be done except keep her as comfortable as possible for as long as possible and spoil her. Thanks to Machray Animal Hospital and Head To Tail Canine Nutrition, I was able to provide Ella with palliative care and got an extra six days with her. In that time, we did things to help cope with the impending loss of Ella.
Some people find that commemorative actions help cope with the loss of a pet, whether it’s sudden or not. Some examples include doing a photoshoot, taking ink prints of their paws, donating money to rescues in the pets’ names and conducting a memorial service.
In Ella’s case, we took a lot of photos, and we arranged for a wonderful vet to come and euthanize Ella at home. A photographer from Simply You Photography came the day of her euthanasia and took beautiful photos of Ella before the procedure. Afterwards, the vet saved a lock of her fur and took ink prints as well as clay molds of her paws. A friend also painted a beautiful picture of Ella.
Losing an emotional support animal can be devastating to a person’s mental health. Ella helped me with my anxiety and depression. Even though she was a small chihuahua, she was my safety and comfort. Since losing her, I have cried hundreds of tears. My anxiety has increased, which has increased my depression.
With this kind of loss, it’s more than just grief. There’s guilt that the owner can’t save their animal companion after they have done so much. And then there’s the loss of control over the mental illness and realization of how much the pet helped control it.
Eventually, after a lot of grieving and adjusting to a life without them, a person may be interested in getting another pet or another emotional support animal. And that can bring on feelings of guilt as well, because it can feel like replacing that pet.
A poem called “A Dog’s Last Will & Testament” (from lifewithdogs.tv and by an unknown author) says, in part, “So, when I die, please do not say, ‘I will never have a pet again, for the loss and the pain is more than I can stand.’ / Instead, go find an unloved dog, one whose life has held no joy or hope, and give my place to him.”
Bringing another animal into the home is not a betrayal of the one that is gone. Pet owners will never replace the one they’ve lost, but they will be opening their home and heart to a new friend, and the previous pet would want their owner to love again and not be lonely.
Crystal Rondeau is a rock music and tattoo-loving young woman who lives with a physical disability and chronic illness. Her main goal in life is to break barriers and destroy the stigmas that come with being disabled and ill. She does this by speaking in schools, volunteering and being very open and uncensored about her life.
Published in Volume 73, Number 16 of The Uniter (January 31, 2019)