Experiencing the pain of grief when we lose a deeply beloved animal is inevitable. However long our grief continues, and whether we feel we are adequately coping with our sorrow or barely able to deal with anguish or despair, every reaction to loss is normal, as is whatever time it takes to heal. As much as our grief definitely requires and deserves our healing attention, there is more left to our relationship than the pain of the loss and our treasured memories. There are also the legacies they leave us.
Like so many of my clients, it comforts me to have physical things around me to honor my animals who have died. There are countless, meaningful ways in which many of us memorialize our animals with photographs, portraits, candles, urns, grave markers, jewelry, altars with treasured mementos, memorial services, etc. These sacred, external expressions of love bring us comfort and honor to our animals. Legacies, on the other hand, are the sacred, internal gifts that are lasting within us. While mourning is normal and necessary, and memorializing is comforting and healing, nothing is a higher tribute to a loved one who has died than to identify, acknowledge and embrace the legacies they left us–the legacies that changed us, the legacies that live on in our hearts–and make them an active, positive, valuable part of our lives.
Animals give us innumerable gifts during our lives together. Even as we understandably mourn their physical presence, it’s important to understand that the gifts from our animals do not go away at death. The energy surrounding and beneath the many gifts they have given us is ours to keep. Not only does their love remain, but so does the energy and essence of all their gifts. That energy is their legacy which remains within us. These legacies are ours forever. Though while in the midst of heartbreak it can be hard to feel anything but pain and the yearning to have them back, identifying, embracing, and integrating these legacies into our lives can both contribute to the healing of our broken hearts and bring greater, lasting meaning to the relationship.
Let’s take a look at some examples of what this means
When my cat Muffin died many years ago I became utterly lost in the pain of it. He showered me with unconditional love every single day of our life together—the most profound love I had ever known. He taught me what it was like to be unconditionally loved, and what it meant to receive love for the first time in my life. When he died, I literally didn’t know how to go on without him and his love. I felt like a shell with nothing inside, where I had once been full.
What kept me so painfully stuck in my grief for a long time was thinking that I couldn’t possibly keep or continue to feel his love. I thought it was just gone. I didn’t understand that the emotional and energetic gifts we receive from our animals after they’ve died stay with us. After a time, thanks to his help, I realized that the love between us still flowed, actively, back and forth. The love wasn’t gone at all. It just wasn’t contained in his old body anymore.
Even with this greatly welcomed and soothing shift to once again feel his love, I had a discomforting awareness that something was missing in my healing. Even with feeling his love again, I still somehow felt incomplete, as if there was a hole inside me that I didn’t know how to fill. It hurt, and overwhelmed me. Over time, with the help of a very skilled and wise therapist, I came to realize that I had a choice: to be in pain from this seemingly unbearable loss for the rest of my life, or, to learn to give myself what he gave me—to learn to love myself as he loved me.
This was a life-changing revelation for me—that for me to truly heal, I needed to go further than just feeling his continuing love. I needed to grow beyond being dependent on his love to feel good about myself, to feel whole. I needed to learn to love myself as much as he loved me. And at that time, I most definitely did not. And so my journey to learn to love myself began, a process which strengthens and continues to this day.
From Muffin, I learned that without him loving me to the depths that he did, I never would have learned that I was lovable. What a waste it would have been for me to wallow for the rest of my life about the loss of him giving me that love in person, rather than learning how to stay connected to his love in the spirit world even as I grieved his physical presence. What a waste his legacy would have been had I remained dependent on him and his love, and hadn’t learned to use that gift to love myself as he had.
However much of a positive shift in my consciousness this learning created, it did not instantly, magically make my grief go away. I grieved for a very long time—but the sharp-edged anguish was softened. Even as I still grieved, I was also filled with a great sense of hope and deep peace, because I was using what he gave me to grow, I was learning to love myself. This peace and my remaining pain of grief existed side by side, a paradox about healing grief that is rarely acknowledged or examined.
So Muffin’s legacy was not limited to the vast love he gave me while on earth, not limited to learning that I could still receive his love from the spirit world, or his having taught me that I am lovable to others. While these were, and remain, enormously healing gifts, the most powerful aspect of his legacy was teaching me that I could learn to love myself.
It was also this loss, a loss that rocked my world with both shattering heartbreak and never imagined healing and growth, that led me to eventually help others through the process of healing from the loss of a deeply beloved animal.
Legacies come in all shapes and sizes. Some legacies may involve far reaching actions to help others, such as creating a sanctuary or foundation in honor of an animal, spearheading a campaign to end puppy mills or writing a book. While these are to be highly commended, most legacies are private and internal, about personal learning, changed consciousness and how we apply it in our lives. Just a few of the legacies described by participants in my Legacies of Love workshop include:
“I learned to accept death this time, rather than resist it in panic and near hysteria. I know I’ll be more present for my next animal’s death. This is huge growth for me. And so was learning to forgive myself for not being at this place earlier.”
“My animal taught me the meaning of forgiveness.He was beaten and abused for years but learned to trust me and others over time. He also taught me patience. It was two years before I could gently kiss or hug him. I was abused too and he taught me that trust can be regained. His legacy to me is that he inspired me to even begin to trust another human in an intimate relationship.”
“My horse left me the legacy of knowing I am a good partner in life. I’ve never worked so collaboratively with another being in my life. We were equals. We both knew it and it wouldn’t be any other way for either of us. We had our conflicts but we worked them through it with both of our needs considered–always. I’ve never had another relationship like that. I don’t know if I will ever meet another horse or person so good at equal partnering as he was, but being with him and all that constant exchanging of love and partnering in our work together taught me that I am good at loving and good at partnering. I will take that with me the rest of my life.”
Another powerful legacy is described by Mary Ann Bumbera in an excerpt from her book, Because of You, I Am – A Spiritual Quest with Man’s Best Friend, which I highly recommend:
“It was obvious that one purpose of having Charlie in my life was to heal this deep childhood trauma. I was now able to acknowledge how much emotional strength Charlie had given me during his twelve years. I realized that I was no longer that vulnerable, exposed, abandoned four-year-old that I sometimes felt I was. I realized that because of Charlie, I did feel safe enough to stand on my own in the world–to take my place in the world. And as a result of my quest of understanding death, I realized that I had gained a wealth of spiritual wisdom that could guide, support, and comfort me. Ironically, Charlie had given me what I needed so that I could cope with life without him.”
These legacy examples may or may not not look or sound like the ones your animals brought to your life. The point is to discover and cherish the unique legacies left to us, and to use them for the betterment of ourselves and perhaps the world around us. What better way could we honor the animals who have brought us so much love than to invest their legacies into our very way of being?
Identifying your animal’s legacy to you
The legacies that your animal has left you may already be crystal clear to you. Sometimes, however, it can take some time—as it did for me—to clarify what the legacies truly are. Taking some time to reflect upon the questions below may bring you more clarity about those legacies and how you want to use them. While the questions have some intentional overlap, and some may not be relevant to you, some of them may be the exact questions needed to unveil your animal’s legacy to you.
Two important additional issues to note about legacies left to us by animals: One, encounters and relationships with wild animals can be so significant that they, too, may create legacies that change our lives. Two, we don’t have to wait until our beloved animals die before recognizing and utilizing the legacies they have left us. We can do that throughout our lives together.
As you read through all of the questions, jot down everything and anything that is triggered in your mind and heart, perhaps helping you see more clearly the legacies left to you, and how you want to embrace and use them:
• What if anything, did my animal give me—physically, emotionally or spiritually— that I have never experienced before?
• How have I changed because of this animal?
• What is different about me because of our relationship—perhaps about my behavior, about who I am inside, my values?
• How am I better person because of my relationship with this animal?
• What have I learned about relationships from this animal?
• What, if anything, do I now better understand— about myself, about animals, about relationships, about love?
• What have I learned about life from my beloved animal?
• What have I learned about who I am and who I want to be?
• What have I learned about dying, death or the other side from this animal?
• What have I learned about the experience of loss and grief from this animal?
• What, if anything, was different about how this animal loves me than other love I have experienced?
• If one of my animal’s legacies was unconditional love, how can I continue to use that gift?
Perhaps to continue to know that I am lovable?
Perhaps to love myself in that way?
Perhaps to know I am lovable enough for others to love me unconditionally?
Perhaps to love others the way I was loved?
• What, if anything, did my animal give me that I do not yet know how to give myself?
• What are ways I might learn how to give these things to myself?
• Imagine your beloved animal coming to talk with you, telling you just the things they want you to keep, the things they want you to to cherish as their legacy to you to enrich your soul and life on earth. Listen. Be still in the silence and peace of reaching out to them. What do you hear or feel?
How can I integrate and apply all that I’ve received from my animal’s legacy to me into the fabric of my life?
In acknowledging, appreciating and actively utilizing the legacies from our animal loved ones, we bring dignity, grace and meaning to all we’ve shared. And we make more bearable the loss we’ve endured. When we lost our beloved animals, our hearts were broken. And when hearts are broken they are open. Open not only to pain, but also open to new learning, growth and shifts in consciousness. Honor the legacy you’ve inherited and let it not only soothe your pain but support you as you grow and evolve into all you’re capable of being.
If you are still hurting from the loss of your animal loved one, you may benefit from these resources:
Legacies of Love: A Gentle Guide to Healing From the Loss of Your Animal Loved One (on demand class)
Connecting With the Soul of Your Animal After Death (MP3 including discussion and meditation)
Healing Guilt Related to End-of-Life Care and Pet Loss—Finding Peace and Self-Forgiveness (on demand class)
Approved for 6 hours of continuing education RACE credits by the American Association of Veterinary State Boards