In my practice as a funeral celebrant and therapist, I encounter many different manifestation of grief, including stoicism, anger, dissociation, overwhelming sorrow, gentle acceptance – each response as individual as the person who experiences it.
The bereaved are generally supported by family and friends but, occasionally, in all the turmoil of arranging a funeral and caring for the living, it may not be recognised that family pets are also grieving. This was brought home to me in a very moving way at a recent family conference.
I arrived somewhat early and, as I waited, observed the scene around me. The mourners seemed isolated in their grief, unable to comfort one another: the teenage children watching loud television programs, their mother, her face pale and blank, sitting on the terrace with a family friend as they finished a belated lunch.
I had been greeted at the front door by a beautiful little dog of indeterminate parentage and engaging personality. As I sat in the armchair, it approached me again. I bent forward, extending my hand to allow it to catch my scent and, somewhat to my surprise, it reared up, wrapping its front paws around my wrist, gazing into my eyes with an expression of eloquent pleading. We spent some minutes together and I stroked the small silky head, whispering words of comfort, while its paws continued to clutch my hand. There was a deep sadness in its brown eyes as it rested its head against me, savouring the closeness. Eventually, its craving for solace satisfied, it bumped me with its nose, released my hand and wandered off to sleep in the sunshine.
Preoccupied as we are with our own affairs, we humans often overlook the grief of animals and their sense of loss and abandonment when faced with the death of someone they love. They need our reassurance, the consolation of a gentle touch, the warmth of affection – to know that, although the person they loved has gone, they will not be left to mourn alone. It was a rare privilege to have the opportunity to comfort this beautiful little soul. I am grateful for the insights it has given me about the inner life of our companion animals, with their capacity for unconditional love.