Human Bereavement - Grieving, coping tips and support links for guinea pig owners and their children

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Wiebke

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Overview:
I The grieving process
II Ways of coping
III How do I tell my children?
IV Accessing support
V More information on saying goodbye and grieving for guinea pigs (Guinea Pig Magazine article series)



Losing a beloved pet can really hit you much harder than you could have ever imagined, whether you are braced for it or not. Pets are the beings we can love unreservedly; they do not question us and they accept us as we are - and still love us even when we are unable to love ourselves. But this also means that the other side of the love, grief, is hitting us in the same measure as we have loved.

Losing a pet is also often our first encounter with death. In a society where death is usually pushed behind closed doors, our vague concept as a gently drifting away in one's forever sleep usually crashes down onto the hard floor of reality. The dying process is a lot more physical than expected and there are no or very few coping mechanisms and rituals in place. This can mean that you feel totally overwhelmed and lost.

This guide link here tells you what you can do for your bereaved guinea pigs: Looking After A Bereaved Guinea Pig


I The grieving process

Loss and the start of the grieving process

The onset of the grieving process is generally characterised by feelings of guilt or failure; we all experience them to some degree or other. It usually takes quite some time until head and heart come together again.
Your emotions can be a lot stronger in the wake of an unexpected/unexplained sudden death, a major battle for the life of a beloved piggy, a freak accident, a failed race to see a vet or if you have had to make the heart-breaking decision to put your piggy to sleep (pts).

Soul searching and the need to make sense of what has just happened are part of how our human brains are wired; we instinctively seek any fault in our ourselves. It is actually not a sign of failure in any way, but it is in fact a clear expression that we are responsible and loving owners! We have unfortunately all too often no control over how soon or what from our guinea pigs die from, nor can even the most knowledgeable vets cure or even recognise everything - veterinary medicine is on the same fast learning curve as we owners are with expanding horizons and new problems on them appearing all the time.

What really matters is how well we care for our pets and how happy we make each day for them while we have them, as far as our guinea pigs are concerned. They don't have a concept for longevity and a good life span, but they certainly know when they are happy, loved and well cared for!

Total devastation after a loss and intense anger in cases where treatment or holiday care has gone wrong are also very common at the onset of the grieving process.
Making sense of what has happened is not easy and is sadly often a question you will never be able to answer fully. If the need to know is very strong, you can ask for a post-mortem examination from your vet; but they are not quite cheap and - depending on the nature of the problem - may not give you the longed-for answer.

Feeling totally empty, numb and unreal in the wake of a loss is also a very normal first reaction until you are ready to deal with the reality of your loss. It is like you have been given a local anaesthetic for your soul so you can go through the motions without feeling them until is safe for you to do so.

As the loss is often connected with some major drama, deep worries, lack of sleep and conflicting but intense emotions in the run up and during the first days after your loss, the adrenaline high is bound to run out sooner or later. At some point you also reach the phase in which the full reality of your loss is sinking in and you are starting to accept it.

The combination of an adrenaline hangover, sheer physical exhaustion, the very tangible reality of a big gap in your life and the heart-wrenching need of having to re-train yourself in your daily routine to no longer include a beloved face will cause what I call the 'Big Blues' phase. Be kind to yourself during this stage, try to rest as much as you can and look for things and activities that make you feel better.


Grieving with a terminally ill guinea pig
The grieving dynamics are different but no less intense if you are told that your guinea pig has a terminal illness.

Your grieving process starts the moment you realise that you have only limited time left with your guinea pig. The upset and intense emotions at this moment mirror those you experience after an unexpected death. It is in fact the second-worst low point of the whole grieving process, apart from death itself.
Please give yourself some time to digest the news if circumstances allow, but if possible try to avoid denial. If you face up to your loss, you will actually work through a good deal of the grieving process by accompanying your guinea pig on its way and will have a somewhat easier time after your guinea pig has died. The actual pain of the loss is never any less because that is determined by the closeness of your individual bond. But if you do it right, you won't be left with regrets.

Dealing with the ups and downs of terminal illness and the worry of recognising the right time for saying goodbye can be very stressful. In between your guinea pig gradually deteriorating and losing its quality of life and the point where you are keeping your guinea pig alive because of your own bereavement fears, there is a grey zone in which you are free when to call the shots. You can't go wrong if you keep your guinea pig's quality of life and welfare upmost in mind well before your own fears of loss. Mounting vet and medication cost can also play a legitimate role in how long you can support a guinea pig.
Generally you are trying to hang on a bit longer with your first guinea pigs than when you are a long term owner for whom euthanasia is no less heart-breaking but no longer as frightening.
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A good way of not falling into the trap of keeping a piggy going past the time it is ready to leave itself is to support feed it only from a bowl or with a spoon. The moment it is no longer interested in its food is the time to let it make its way to the Rainbow Bridge.
In most cases you will know when your guinea pig is too ill, anyway, but it is very normal (and we all do it, however experienced) to question yourself when you are coming close to or are already in the grey zone.

But there is one huge gift hidden in the devastating news: You have still the opportunity to say and do everything you want and need to. You can really make the remaining time count! Love transcends time, and you can pack a lifetime's worth into just a moment.
As bitter-sweet as the experience is, it is in your control just how bitter or how sweet you make this period, so that when the time comes you can avoid feeling like you have failed your beloved one - because you KNOW for sure that you haven't!
Please be courageous and make the best of this opportunity for both your guinea pig and yourself!


Going through the grieving process

Later on, it is generally the many little unthinking ways in which your daily interaction and your close bond has connected you that can catch you out unawares several times a day at first and gradually less so in the most painful way, like ripping off a scab over a healing wound. These reminders are all the more jarring because you cannot brace for them.

Sometimes you can also experience a very physical need to hold and cuddle your piggy again - just one more time.
Trying to experience it in its sensory fullness as part of a mindfulness exercise cannot come close to the real thing, but it can help a little.

Sadly a flash of memory, a specific situation or a sensory experience can bring up the whole loss again all of a sudden.
Grieving can be like a spiral in which you revisit certain events and feelings, but hopefully from a slightly different perspective and with a less painful impact each time. If the impact remains as high as ever or if you continue to struggle coping with flashbacks, please seek support as you may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in some form.
It is however very normal to be extremely jittery when you are confronted with the same or similar symptoms or situations (like agreeing to another operation after a failed one). It takes a real leap of faith, the same as you have to get back on a horse after a bad fall.

In some cases it can take a very long time until you are feeling just sad that your piggy is no longer with you, but you are feeling equally blessed for having had this amazing bond and this special presence in your life. Because it is such an integral part of your life and what you are as person, your piggy is staying with you for as long as you live and remember. You will never stop missing those that have gone, but you and your life would also be a lot poorer without those we all can love unreservedly! You will carry that richness that your guinea pigs have given you with you all the time. That is their wonderful legacy, even if it comes at a painful price.
 

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II Ways of Coping

Expressing and processing your feelings

If you would like to speak about your feelings and would welcome the sympathy and support from other people who understand how much the loss of a beloved guinea pig can affect you, then you are always welcome to start a thread in our Guinea Pig or General Chat section.

Talking is the by far best thing you can do, in whichever form!
Writing and painting or expressing your feelings through music, dance or crafting can also help.


Start a diary about your feelings if you don't have any understanding listeners and rather not talk to stangers.
Write about all the little things that you are missing through the absence of your guinea pig and put all down all your precious snatches of memories as they come to your mind, especially if you are inconsolable. You will hopefully find over time that your feelings change as you go through the grieving process, but also that there is much more left in your memories of your beloved piggy that can now no longer taken away from you!

You are most welcome to post a tribute to the guinea pig you have lost in our Rainbow Bridge section at any time, but it has to feel right for you, first and foremost!
We have got members who prefer to not post or even go there as they find it too upsetting.
Others feel that speaking about it and their loss is bringing them much needed relief.
Some prefer to wait until they have come to terms with the loss or have at least been able to accept it; sometimes several months later.
For another group, writing a full tribute with pictures and some special memories is in itself part of the coping process.
Sometimes members would like to set a memorial to long dead, but still much missed and loved guinea pigs of theirs.
We all grieve differently, but the section is there those that want to make use of it in whichever form at any point in time!


Regaining your guinea pig
A dramatic and often traumatic death, especially if has happened as an emergency and was much more physical than you would ever have imagined can cause immense feelings of guilt or failure. This can obscure and taint the way you think about your guinea pig and how you remember it for a long time, and in some cases forever.

It is very important that you work to regain your precious memories of a loving bond and a happy life again. After all, it should be the longer life that you have shared and that has meant so much to you and has brought you so many special memories that should count in the long run and not any comparatively short period of illness or suffering or an untimely accident at the end!

Writing down all your memories as they come to you, the little and big ones can be part of this process. This way, they can't be taken away from you. You will also find that your beloved one is still very much there in your heart and mind, much more than you would expect! Balancing out the happy with the painful is also going to help you with processing your grief. You will find that your feelings will gradually change over time.

Collecting the photos, going through them and making an album, collage or having your favourite picture printed and framed can help you with regaining the happy memories at some stage, especially when they are overshadowed by a somewhat unhappy or traumatic demise.
But if it is still too painful for you to even look at any pictures or reminders, wait until you are ready for it whenever that is. Do not feel bad if your pain is too great for this for many months; it can easily happen with a special piggy of yours, as it has happened with mine.
It can catch you out, even when you brace for your loss, like it happened to me with my still most special piggy of all, Minx. It took me a full one and a half years to come to terms with her loss; mainly because at that time I had nobody to talk about to who would understand my grieving for a guinea pig - not even one that was more like a mini-dog following me around on my daily chores! Finding a place where I got this understanding (i.e. finding this forum) was the turning point at which I could finally accept her loss and make peace with it emotionally.

I have made the big mistake once of letting heart failure during an emergency eye removal operation taint the way I thought of my gentle Hafina for a long time because of my strong feelings of guilt and failure. In the end I felt like I had betrayed her twice - firstly by my guilt when in fact I was doing my best to give her a chance for a pain-free life and then again by depriving her off all the loving memories she deserved so much to remembered by.

That was when I started to realise just how vital it is that we care about how we want to ultimately remember a beloved one and do them justice. It is also important that we think about whether there is a legacy to carry into the future in any loss we experience.
In Hafina's case, her legacy for me is to not devalue a loving bond and a wonderful personality by making space for this aspect in my own grieving process.
My own tributes in the Rainbow Bridge, which involve looking through hundreds and thousand pictures and looking back through a life and all the precious memories have become my own way of giving any piggy of mine and my unique bond with them the counterbalance to my feelings of loss.
Incidentally, creating something positive as a result of my experiences over Hafina's loss has finally brought her back to me and I can now think of her with the warmth she deserves and without feeling shameful.

You will have to find your own way and medium through which you want to recover and ultimately cherish your good memories and the personality you love, whether it is through words, pictures, songs or an object. But I would like you to urge you to make the effort for the sake of the one you have loved, still love and will always love: make sure that you can remember them with the love you never stop feeling for them!


Burial and marking the passing
Whichever way you bury or cremate your guinea pigs, you may want to mark the passing in some tangible way, whether it is with a special urn, a marked grave with a painted stone or wooden marker, a burial pot with a memorial plant that can come with you in case of a house move, a framed picture or album, a footprint in colour or relief, an ornament like a personalised painted pebble, a painting from an artist or a little piece of jewellery or something you have created yourself.

I always bury my guinea pigs with a little farewell bouquet of flowers from my garden and try to include forget-me-nots whenever they are in flower. I also try to reflect the personalities in my choice of blooms if the time of year allows it.
My piggies are wrapped in kitchen paper with compostable string before they are placed in a large cat-safe covered flower pot together with their comrades that have preceded them. The pot is then planted over when it is full, first with shallow rooted ground cover and later with a small flowering shrub or a patio rose.

Nesta (May 2017) - Nerys (August 2016) - Myfina (Christmas 2017)
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Tegyd's final resting place with seasonal planting:
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My large piggy pot, which houses the 7 piggies that have passed away in 2016/17 with its interim shallow-rooted perennial evergreen planting (low maintenance saxifraga urbium from the alpine section of a garden centre). I am using ericaceous/acid compost to help speed up the process. Eventually I am planning to plant a patio rose in the pot a few more years down the line.
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Dealing with special days
Anniversaries and birthdays are always hard, especially the first ones. It can help to create a little ritual, whether that is lighting a candle, laying some picked flowers from your garden or from pots, playing a special song that connects you to your piggy etc. for these occasions. It helps acknowledging your loss. Forget-me-nots are my personal favourite when it comes to memorial plants; I also love it when they self-seed around, like all the little things that I have learned from my piggies over time and that can now profit other guinea pigs and their owners!

But at the same time you may also want to make a life affirming gesture, like giving a small donation to a guinea pig rescue or sponsoring a permanent sanctuary/rescue resident in your guinea pig's name in order to create a positive legacy into the future and hand on the joy and enrichment that your piggy has brought you.
This is especially helpful if you have been/are still experiencing strong feelings of guilt, failure or anger. Turning your negative feelings into a constructive action benefitting other guinea pigs or owners can really help you towards accepting what has happened by creating a kind of emotional balance and a positive legacy. We can't change our past, but we can choose how we go on and whether we want to bury a bitter experience or turn into something that spurns us on. Shaping the future is in our control!
 

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III How do I tell my children?

It is always much harder having to break the news of a death to your children. If there is a serious illness, you can of course prepare them to a certain extent. It helps in most cases if you are matter of fact, but at the same time supportive, about it all. How much you want to say about death and afterlife depends on your children's age and your religion.

However, if you struggle yourself or have a very sensitive or special needs child, you can contact either a human (adult and child) or a pet bereavement helpline to help work out the best way forward for you with specially trained people and to get support for yourself and for your child during its grieving process. Depending on the age, they may want to have a conversation on their own.


Finding local bereavement support lines and charities
You can find what is available locally for you by googling 'bereavement helplines', 'pet loss support for children' or 'pet bereavement'.
In the UK, the free Blue Cross helpline and email service is a good place to start: SupportLine - Problems: Pet Bereavement: Advice, support and information

You may also find some of the tips and experiences from forum member mothers in this thread here helpful: Dead young guinea pig :-( and how to tell the kids


Recommended children's books that deal with pet bereavement at different ages

- Badger's parting gifts by Susan Varley
An old Badger takes leave with special gifts to help his friends through their bereavement.
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- Water Bugs and Dragonflies by Doris Stickney
This books tries to introduce death as a natural part of the life that cannot be contolled and is difficult to explain with the example of the life cycle of dragonflies.
Here is a pdf version with help on how you introduce the story and integrate it with an activity:
https://childbereavementuk.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Waterbugs-and-Butterflies.pdf

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How to introduce a new cavy companion or a new pet?
Please do not give a new guinea pig to a grieving child like trying to replace a broken toy. What your child is mourning over is the loss of a unique and irreplaceable bond.
Any new arrival should be strictly along the lines of 'our remaining guinea pig needs a new friend because it is lonely and sad'.

Allow your child to choose the right time if company for a bereaved guinea pig is not an issue and then involve them in the process and choice of any new pets, be it more guinea pigs or another species. If you could do this via an adoption process in order to give unhappy pets a happy life, that would be great!
Looking After A Bereaved Guinea Pig


More helpful links and resources to help your children through the grieving process
- BBC video: How to talk to kids about the loss of a pet: Ferne and Rory's Vet Tales - Help your child cope with the death of a pet

- Blue Cross: Missing my friend - support for children: Pet loss support for children - missing my friend

- Children and pet loss - age group related advice and further resources: Children and Pet Loss


IV Accessing support

If you struggle with the grieving process to the extent that you are unable to get on with your daily life or sleep, or to move on with your feelings of guilt or loss, please contact a pet bereavement service. There are free and anonymous phone lines in many countries available that can help you cope with your loss.
Pet bereavement can happen to anybody and it can hit anybody much harder than they think imaginable; there is no shame in it!

Please also be aware that the loss of a beloved pet can bring up previous losses again and make the grieving process much harder for you. The helplines are also there for those difficult birthdays and anniversaries when the pain of your loss returns in full strength.

You may find locally available options by googling for 'pet bereavement support'.
This link here gives you an overview of available services for the UK. The Blue Cross offer both a free phone line as well as an email service.
SupportLine - Problems: Pet Bereavement: Advice, support and information

If you have experience with Mindfulness exercises, please practice any that may help you if possible. They are usually most difficult to access at times when your emotions are overwhelming you and you need them most, but grieving is not a quick process and there will be calmer periods when those exercises can really help you!



V More information on saying goodbye to and grieving for guinea pigs
(Guinea Pig Magazine article series)


Guinea Pig Magazine has published a series of insightful and sensitive articles about the whole field of loss and grieving in 2018/19.
These issues can still be back-ordered worldwide from their website both digitally or in print if you think that they may help you understand better what you are going through and to come to terms with your loss, or if you struggle with accessing support otherwise.
For ordering please click here: Back Issues – Guinea Pig Mag

Issue 45:
- Saying Goodbye 1: Coping with Grief: How does grief work? - Pet Bereavement Support Services
- Reader's Story: Coping with Guilt
- The Perfect Gift: A very special last day for Minx. (A story about euthanasia, bereavement and an acutely pining companion)
- Your Duty of Care (including keeping your guinea pigs pain-free and making the hardest decision of all)
Issue 46:
- Saying Goodbye 2: Coping with Death and Euthanasia: Knowing when to say goodbye - What happens at the vet clinic and afterwards?
- Reincarnation? - Readers' stories
Issue 47:
- Saying Goodbye 3: Coping with Terminal Illness: How to care for a terminally ill or dying guinea pig?
Issue 48:
- Saying Goodbye 4: Ways of Remembering Them - Ideas and inspiration
 
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