By: Alexa Linton
“We live in a culture where it has been rubbed into us in every conceivable way that to die is a terrible thing.” – Alan Watts
When I started thinking about something that I would like to help animal lovers with, coping with the death of a pet came to mind right away. Not only is it an area that has affected me to a great degree in my life and career and something I feel a strong sense of connection to, but it is also an experience that every animal lover has to face a time or two, or quite possibly more, during their life. And saying goodbye to our animals is rarely easy or comfortable. In fact, as the title of my upcoming book, Death Sucks, due for release at the beginning of March, clearly states, it can really really suck.
Seeing firsthand how a different understanding of the transition of death and dying in our animals can, by tiny increments or great bounds, change this experience, lit a fire of inspiration within me. These flames were further fanned by the tragic stories of people suffering deeply and at length from the loss of a beloved animal friend and companion, even refusing to have another animal as an attempt to prevent future heartbreak.
For many of us, even the word death is hard to say or think about. It holds its own energetic imprint, an energy which changes depending on our culture, beliefs and upbringing. For example, if I lived in a specific area of the world, my experience of the word death would be very different due to my religious or spiritual understanding, my cultural imprinting and the behaviour I observe in my role models during times of dying and death, namely my family. In this culture, I may have been taught at an early age that people re-incarnate and that death is a transition that should be grieved as much as is necessary for each individual.
The combination of these factors and their effect on my perception would create a very different experience of death than my reaction to Squeaky my hamster passing on, my very first experience of death and dying. As a ten year old in a westernized culture, death, being taboo, had not been discussed or explained, and therefore I had no framework to understand what was happening to Squeaky or to myself. All I knew at the time was that someone who was precious to me was gone forever, creating an unbearable sense of loss, unprocessed grief and feelings of confusion and abandonment. It is understandable then, that many of us have what might be considered “over-reactions” to death and the dying process. Even my parents or teachers, as much as they wanted to help me, would not necessarily have had a framework with which to help my ten-year-old self understand. This discomfort with facing and “unpacking” our unique beliefs, patterns and current experience of death, and feeling equally uncomfortable discussing and exploring this essential topic with others, is one of the big reasons why I knew I had to write my book, both for you and for me. After all, as animal lovers, we’re never going to stop moving through the process of death and dying with our furry loved ones. And, if you are someone who loves animals, not allowing yourself to share your life with another animal as a way to prevent potential heartbreak just might suck even more than death itself.
Why death sucks so much
Alright, we’re diving in. Why does the death of a loved one hurt so bad? And is it possible for it not to suck nearly as much? Remembering that in each one of us, we contain entirely unique imprints around death, there seem to be a few common threads.
- Losing love is the worst. Much of what we do as human beings, our motivation behind our actions and behaviors, is to prevent the loss of love. It is the reason we fear criticism, disapproval, rejection, abandonment and much more. Death, by its very nature, feels like the ultimate loss on this level, with no potential for resolution, and no possibility of restoration of the love we once felt. It can feel like there is no turning back from this transition and its finality feels deeply painful and terrifying on countless levels. The sense of loss that accompanies death cuts deep, tapping into seemingly endless wells of grief and, quite possibly, anger, guilt and fear as well. It is, on so many levels, the ultimate loss, with the entire physical landscape of our life being irrevocably changed by the disappearance of a key player, and the love that they brought to your life.
- This grief is all your grief. Like a giant fishing net, the death of your beloved furry companion and the feelings of grief and loss accompanying this loss has the potential to bring up a heavy, overwhelming load of unprocessed emotion relating to this experience. The feeling of opening Pandora’s box is very common and with it, the desire to stuff it all down, not look at it, and perhaps, stay distant from any new animals entering your life or new experiences that might push your buttons and trigger an emotional onslaught. The problem is this. That emotion is not going anywhere. It stays in your body and does all sorts of not so fun things to your body and mind. Which is why, with the help of grief expert, Celeste Morris, we’re going to be going into depth on how to work with your own personal Pandora’s boxes of emotion when they come up, an essential skill for all of us.
- We live in a physical world. Or at least we tend to relate to it that way. Which means that when one of our animals no longer exists physically in it, we feel like the connection is gone forever. Is it true? That depends on the person and their perception. Because, what is true for one is not true for another. Here’s the thing though. Our truth can change with experience and the integration of that experience. My truth when I had my hamster Squeaky was that the world was purely physical. And it changed the way I perceived his death, creating a deeper sense of loss of love and connection. Now my truth is very very different – I see the world as energy which manifests into tangible things. To me, it is much more than just physical. And this truth allows me to stay connected with my animals long after they are gone because our connection doesn’t depend on being together physically. I can let go into the trust that they are with me long after they have parted from their physical form. The result? Death, even though it is still a deep loss, a huge adjustment and an inherently challenging transition, becomes something very different.
- Death questions our own mortality. Every time we experience death it pushes on some major buttons questioning our very existence and our own mortality. And that can really suck. No one really enjoys pondering their own death and what that will mean, partly because it opens the door to a million other questions and concerns around what happens after, heaven and hell, who and what we’re leaving behind, what kind of mark we have left on the world, and on and on. This is one of those doors most of us, understandably, choose to keep under lock and key. It is definitely not all sunshine and unicorns back there. But not looking at all at this might just suck more than hauling this door open and courageously looking at what lies beyond it. Because it means that as long as that door is under lock and key, as long as we continue to deny that death is a reality that we are eventually going to have to face, we are not fully living and we are never fully present in our lives. And that definitely sucks.
- The death of our animals is underplayed by our society. If you are an animal lover, you have more than likely lost at least one, if not many, beloved furry family members. Each passing feels different, but none are void of loss or grief. And yet, we live in a society that has, historically, downplayed our experience of loss and the potency of our grief. We hear comments like “it’s just a dog” or “why are you so upset,” and they make our stomachs churn and the steam come out our ears. For many of us, myself included, our animals are the closest to us of anyone in our lives. We trust them with our hearts, we love them with a depth and a strength that is hard to describe, we come to rely on their love, connection and presence to move us through our days – is it any wonder that their passing from this world can bring deep despair and feelings of unbearable loss? Add to this the experience of feeling guilty and ashamed for feeling so deeply and you’ve got the makings of something incredibly sucky.
Here’s something really cool though, after all that heaviness. Do you notice what’s happening for you now that you’ve courageously (because this post is not an easy one to read – high fives to you for getting to here) cultivated some new awareness around this taboo subject? Maybe there’s a sense of peace from understanding something a little more, or a sense of resolution that wasn’t there before. Sharing about and exploring our current context and framework around death and dying is one essential way we can understand it more deeply and come to a place of greater peace and resolution – it gives us the opportunity and the venue to finally unpack this much avoided topic and bring it into the light. So often, because we fear Pandora’s box of emotions being opened we skirt this topic, rather than get curious about it – our peace and resolution will come through awareness and the courage to look deeper at the truth about this inevitable transition.
Alexa’s brand new book, Death Sucks: A straight up guide to navigating your pet’s final transition is coming out in early March! Would you like a copy for yourself or an animal loving friend? Head to https://www.facebook.com/animalsandloss for all the details on where you can find it.
Want to learn more about what your animals are trying to tell you? Join me for the free online 5-day Furry Guru adventure at www.alexalinton.com/adventure-with-alexa.