What was your first pet’s name? I’ll go first- Auggie. Auggie was a golden retriever and lived to be 15, she was even older than I was. Next came Jarold, the green-eyed white cat, then Brody the pug, and so on. I remember in each of their final days the process of saying goodbye then watching as my dad carried them gently to the car to go to the vet. Heartbreaking each time, but comforting to be within arms reach of my family throughout it all.
If you’ve experienced this specific kind of pain you understand how hard the days that follow are. The small sadness of an empty dog bed, kibble left uneaten, a toy untouched. When we are young our parents explain it to us the best they can- our furry companion has passed away and gone to heaven, they’re in a better place, they’re no longer suffering, they’ve gone to play with their friends. We are eased into our pain through small white lies and a little bit of sugar-coating on behalf of loving guardians. However, the pain of losing a four-legged companion in your 20s is a pain which can be harder to describe and to work through.
To be a young adult grappling with emotions far away from family can be daunting. Whether your family is 45 minutes away or 8 hours, the inability to leisurely share favorite memories or to have a constant crying shoulder of people who understand the depth of your hurting can make healing all that much harder. We are growing into ourselves and falling into positive habits intentionally for the first time, and here we are attempting to mend our own broken hearts simultaneously. It is a struggle, and for anyone who has gone through this- my heart is with you.
In the past week I lost my first ever pet I owned independently, and I have had to wade through the emotions in the moments when I’m alone. My sweet, free-roam bunny Olive would have celebrated his Gotcha Day this May. Instead, a small army of his admirers (my roommates and friends) watched as I covered a shoe box with dirt and placed a beautiful decorative sign that read, “You left pawprints on my heart”, as they shared their favorite memories on Monday. It was sudden and traumatic, and I want to give a million hugs to my Dad who had to experience all my pets pass away in his arms instead of my mom or us kids. I finally understand, and I wish so badly I didn’t. I will never forget his last little breaths, the sigh of relief when I gave him his final kisses on the head, all of his aunties surrounding him and stroking his soft, white hair. I am heartbroken, expecting him to come running from his room to give me kisses every morning. There is a small hole left where he should be.
Outside of the pain, this experience has reminded me of the strength and resilience of being in your 20s. To experience inevitable heartbreak and continue to turn in assignments, show up to events, perform well on exams, put on a smiling face for friends, etc., is a strength not all are capable of. To lose a friend who was around for pivotal moments of your life, a pet who licked up tears and gave cuddles when you were sad- can be devastating, and it is so important to remember how valid your feelings are during this time.
If you too have to comprehend the pain of losing a pet in your 20s, I hope you remember these three things:
The depth of your feelings is normal – So many of the emotions you are processing are foreign, so your reactions will compliment this fact. It is okay if you feel dramatic- you’re not.
Pain is fleeting- Your pain is not infinite. Keep yourself grounded through remembrance of favorite times, even make a memory book. This way, all your memories will not be negatively framed.
Your sweet pet would want you to be happy- It’s easy to blame ourselves or wonder where things went wrong when a pet suddenly passes, but it is imperative to understand that life just proceeds in the way it does. Your pet would want you to be happy, because as most of us know, nothing makes animals happier than seeing their owners elated.
The experience of losing a pet is unique to each person who goes through it. To understand the strength of your youth and utilize it to better equip you for the hard times will prepare you for unprecedented moments such as these.