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When Rainbow Bridge Calls

Updated: Jul 24, 2023

By Anna Nicola, web team blogger

Trigger warning: Themes of death, depression, grief, loss, mental illness

If you have recently lost a pet, then this post is written for you. Although I can't speak for how you experience loss, because how we experience it is vastly different, I can speak to it, and hopefully bring some comfort, ideas for supporting the process, and support groups.

For some people, they can be surprised at how okay they feel, and for others, it can be one of the most painful experiences ever imaginable. Both of those experiences are absolutely ok and totally valid, and it is important to recognise this.

My own experience

I want to start by talking about my own experience with loss, as I think it might some people to relate. My two cats Bubo and Raffy had been with me since university (2005) and slept with me every night, followed me to many a bathroom, and had been there, through thick and thin. People commented on how close we were, and remember someone once told me 'They're like a circus like you have your own train' whilst someone else said 'They're like your shadow' and it was true! But I was their shadow too, and I followed them around. This wasn't a one-way street. When I found out that my Raffy had Grade 3 congestive heart failure the vet said he had around 6 months to live. I was devastated, and the level of guilt was overwhelming. I'd just finished worrying about my dog who had a liver shunt operation to save his life, and now I felt helpless, I couldn't pay my way out of this. Why couldn't I have prevented or delayed this? But the truth was, Raffy (and animals in general!) was excellent at hiding any problems and it just didn't get picked up.

I did a lot of research and found lots of good advice. I familiarised myself with the medication and worked out how to support him best, I hand-fed when needed, and accepted that not every pill was taken, but that was ok. It was the quality of life that mattered most. I had another 2.5 years with my boy before I had to call a vet to the house- his final day. We woke up to find Raffs so full of fluid that his face was twice the size and he collapsed in the toilet, unable to hold himself up. Raffy was terrified of vets so I couldn't take him to the clinic but the biggest kindness I could do was to call Tony the Vet who came to us. So we gave him the best last day ever with fresh prawns and choux buns. His little happy face broke my heart, but he was so unwell. I hated the vet coming. I spent the next 2 weeks on my bed hugging Raffys bed and smelling him, cursing myself for taking the bed out to the garden for his final day. I wanted to smell him- but I could only really smell the grass. I didn't eat or sleep, and became very depressed.

One month later my beautiful Bubo seemed to have trouble eating. I took her to the vet and they told me it was nothing to worry about, she just needed a dental. It made no difference, and she got worse. By the 3rd week, her nose was blocked, and I knew something wasn't right. A second vet instantly recognised a rare fast-growing cancer in her stomach that had spread to both sides of her throat and nose. It felt like sand flowing through my hands. Three months after losing Raffs I had to call Tony again. I was already in a very low state and when Tony came and I was a bit more mechanical with the process. Subconsciously I had stopped feeling. This meant I didn't grieve for Bubo as I should have, and certainly not as I expected to- and I became overwhelmed with guilt. Did I not care as much as I thought I did? Did this mean I was happy they were gone? But I did care. And I would still give anything to see them again and to have one more day with them.

After losing both Raffs and Bubo I made up memories of the day they passed. In my mind, they were afraid and I was making the wrong decision to put them to sleep. I remembered falsely that they were hiding from the vet, I was cold, and they weren't ready. But trusted friends were with me, and they only remember a very sensitive, dignified, peaceful passing of two very much loved family members who were in a lot of suffering that would have gotten much worse. It was the guilt that was warping my own memories and I still struggle two years on.

What grief does

Grief caused by the loss of a loved one affects us all in different ways. As you can see from my experience, I swung from extremely preoccupied with the loss of my Raffs to calm and collected, seemingly indifferent to my sweet Bubo. This was simply due to an already overwhelmed system deactivating and I now realise after 2 years of therapy that Raffy and Bubo's passing triggered a mental health issue for me.

The feelings we experience at the loss of a loved one are not restricted to humans. Our relationships with animals are just as valid and powerful. Grief is extremely complex, and if you have made the decision to put to sleep, it's a choice to take a life of a loved one. It's super hard. If you've lost a pet through accident or trauma, without being given that choice, it's incredibly hard for all the feelings of 'what if I did something different'. We might blame ourselves in any situation. For instance, if you have been providing palliative care for them there are difficulties coming to terms with all sorts of feelings associated with guilt- could you have cared harder, tried something different, plus let's not forget the sudden ceasing of your role as a carer- suddenly you have no power over this illness.

The other part of guilt might centre around the actual event of passing- it could be a road traffic accident or a PTS situation- it doesn't matter as we might still blame ourselves for opening the door and letting them out, or calling the vet and making that appointment. We may take them for their last walk to the park, and find they have a new leash of life and seem better than usual. You may question that appointment. But it's when those days are fewer and fewer. And the fact is, you can never know a road traffic accident will happen and you must trust that in letting them out, you judged the surrounding environment to the best of your knowledge at that moment. We base our actions on a number of tiny events which we use to weigh up our choices, mix in our experience and trust in our decisions. Given the opportunity to relive that same scenario, we will likely make the same choice because these are our tendencies, and this is made up by the sum of our experiences up to our present time. In a put-to-sleep situation, this guilt can be extreme, because you made the choice to ease their suffering by bringing an end to life, you hold them, and see the light pass. This is an incredibly brave, and selfless act of kindness which allows your loved one to pass with dignity and with you as their comfort, but can leave us feeling angry at ourselves, guilty and even very confused- what just happened? What did we do? Did we do the right thing? You may even find yourself questioning your experience after the event - for me, I exaggerated the negative aspects of that event.

Ways to cope with grief

Just like our experiences with grief is unique, as is how we deal with the process, from a healing perspective. For many people friends and family can provide support. But we don't all have friends and family, and even if we do, not everyone is understanding of our loss. Sadly, the loss of an animal companion is not always understood by society, but our attachment to them is real, as is our symbiotic relationship. Familial relationships with our animal companions are very real and valid. This is so important to acknowledge.

An article by the non-profit Ralph's Blog, an online support group that specialises in pet loss had a profound effect on me. It really helped me understand my guilt, like when we find a happy moment and feel guilty, because I was afraid of forgetting them. It explained the difference between moving forward and moving on, in that we're not forgetting, our grief and their presence in us doesn't get smaller, but the space around our grief gets bigger and we fill that with love and happiness, and that surrounds them inside us.

Another excellent support group is The Comfort Couch Group on Facebook, which is a friendly safe place to express yourself amongst others going through the same thing. The group is private, so anything you post won't show up in your general feed, only within the safe space of the group.

(Picture courtesy of Ralph's Blog, 2023)

Actively acknowledging loss also works for some people. When Oscar and Finley went over Rainbow Bridge, trustee Libby Waterhouse helped her boys to create a memory book full of their favourite pictures and memories which really helped them get through their first loss with Oscar.

For me, I created a memorial for my Raffs and Bubo, I felt that this is what I would do for any loved one human or not. It gave me something to direct my love to.

Other peoples experiences

I wanted to ask a few people about their experience with grief due to the loss of a non-human family member, as we all think and feel about this in our own unique way. One person pointed out how euthanasia caused a lot of internal conflict for him, as it felt unnatural to make that decision.

"Euthanasia felt like going against nature like I should have let him die in his sleep naturally but that was unlikely to happen, and there was pain and dignity to remember. We make unnatural choices when they are alive - give them tablets, keep them in houses, etc we don't have a problem with that, even though it goes against nature, but when it comes to euthanasia, ending a pet's life, it's against nature taking its natural course. So in a sense, their whole life is us interfering with the natural course of things, but I think when you hear stories of a dog on a farm and it goes off and dies in a bush- you think ah, that seems to be easier way to deal with them passing because that's rationalised as nature taking its course. But in reality, they might be at risk of slow deterioration and pain. Our love for them means we owe it to them to know when the time is right"

In her comments about loss, Trustee Tracy Gillingwater reminds us that opening are hearts after a loss brings us a great joy, but most importantly, that so many vulnerable animals need people with just this sort of love to give, in order to be safe and experience comfort and companionship:

"Opening your heart to another animal after losing one can be difficult... but when you work in rescue, how can you not? Both of us have had cats and dogs all our lives. I have never had an empty home of cats for over 30 years. I have felt a huge loss, especially with the lockdown. Adopting 3 FIV cats together, no one else wanted... seemed meant to be. They arrived and brought a fresh burst of love, life, and laughter into our home, which was much needed after so much sadness and loss. We may have saved them, but no doubt they saved us too."

This blog is dedicated to all our furry family and friends.

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