B.J. Shonk, author of Missing Pieces, Broken Heart, lost her beloved family dog after 16 years of companionship. The loss left a huge hole in her life and in her family, but B.J. was often taken aback by the responses from others when she expressed her grief.
To many of us, pets are a part of the family, but pet loss is largely misunderstood in our society today. In this episode, she’ll guide you through the grieving process after the death or disappearance of your beloved pet.
Key Points From This Episode:
- Why loss is loss: no matter what, who, or how.
- How can we support friends who have lost a pet.
- Positive ways to process the loss of a pet.
- How can we be better pet owners?
What was it like to lose your pet?
We had Wookie in our family for 16 and a half years, which is basically about a quarter of my life. She was just another fluffy family member.
We went on a vacation, and she was home with one of our sons, Will. We went to Wookie’s secondary clinic and met Dr. Quillivan the first time. We knew that three seizures in a matter of less than 24 hours was not going to be good news for a 16 and a half year old dog. My son and I took turns holding her—hearts breaking, tears flowing, just one of the most heart-wrenching moments in my whole life. Then my husband came. Same thing. He got to hold her, spend time with her and with Dr. Quillivan.
These are all things that you have to go through when you’re very emotional. And it’s very difficult. We had been on this wonderful vacation visiting family in Colorado, but when we got a phone call about the dog, everything went downhill from there.
The 20-minute drive back home seemed like hours in misery. Then, we walked through the laundry room and there’s her kennel and her bowl and her blanket and her tennis ball.
I couldn’t look at those things.
I quickly got them out of sight and we tried to progress, but it’s kind of like you’re doped up.
“You don‘t know what to feel, you don’t know what to do, you’re totally miserable.”
There were the three of us — myself, my husband and our son Will who was finishing his degree and living with us. Wookie was absolutely one of his best friends in the world. Where Will went, Wookie went. Every place. We had already — all three of us — shed buckets full of tears, and you don’t know what to do. You don’t know where to go, you don’t know what you’re feeling or how you’re supposed to feel. It’s devastating and it’s hard. But I think in our society today, that pet loss is just not accepted or totally understood by a lot of people.
We kind of got through that day and the next day, we went to church, and I knew that it was useless for me to wear makeup because it would end up all over the place. I looked and felt terrible.
Obviously, people saw I was miserable, and they’d come up and say, “Hey Barb, you don’t look very good, what’s wrong?” I’d say, “Well, you know, we lost our puppy and we had her for 16 and a half years.” A few people would come up and pat you on the back or give you a hug and say, “I’m sorry to hear that. At least it was only a pet — not a family member.”
Wookie was a part of my family. It makes you so angry that your feelings are not validated by others.
Why did you decide to write Missing Pieces, Broken Heart?
Most of those [losses] were when I was a kid. I was very young but when we went through this with Wookie, trying to function and get along, it was so hard, it’s just like you’re living through grief and misery.
I went on the internet and I looked at a lot of books and I read the book reviews and different things like that. Okay, which book is right for me, which one should I take? If you go out there and look for books, there’s lots of books relating to grief and pet loss. Obviously, I’m not the only person in the world feeling it, and I applaud everybody who has taken the time to try to do this to help others.
As I was reading and doing research, I wasn’t quite finding what I was looking for. Because what I was looking for was a little bit unique and different.
“I wanted to understand the journey that other pet owners have taken, with the expertise and medical advice that veterinarians and their staff would have.”
We had Wookie cremated, and we have this little sweet box that’s engraved with a little silver thing on it that says, “Our Puppy Girl, Wookie.”
When I went to pick that up, Dr. Quillivan was there and I said to her, I said, “Dr. Quillivan, you got a moment that we could talk?” We ended up talking for quite a few moments and I said, “You know… This is really hard.”
“I’ve lost pets but I’ve never felt like I do now.” I told her, “I have a business and journalistic background, so you know, I’m really thinking that there needs to be a book out there for this. Something that can immediately help people who are getting ready to navigate this difficult journey and how to get through it.”
She reached into her pocket, handed me her card and said, “When you’re ready to write the book, come back and talk to me.”
After a year’s time, I got back with her, and that’s been the journey.
We collaborated with veterinarians across the country, one out on the east coast, one in the west coast and two in the Texas area, who have just been fabulous in helping in the journey of writing this book. So it applies to not only pet owners who have had the loss, but as a tool for veterinarians to use for themselves, with their staff.
We went to veterinary conferences, we read lots of literature, we had the vets involved in the editing, Dr. Quillivan was there right along with us and she proofed, she edited, and she offered her expertise and advice along with three other veterinarians.
If you wanted people to take away one central idea or one story from the book, what would you pick?
Loss is loss. We have documented a lot of different kinds of stories about loss. One of the things I want people to know is that a lot of times their feelings are not going to get validated.
It is painful, and it can be painful beyond measure. Your heart feels like it’s shattering. If you feel like you have a tool, if you have a resource to understand the journey, it makes all the difference in the world.
Did journaling help validate your feelings?
It did, I wrote them down, number one. I like to write, but it doesn’t matter if you do like to write or you don’t like to write. When you have that pen in hand, it’s a release.
I actually went back later and tried to read it at certain point, in little sections. It was very painful, like it brought it all back. But I realized how far I had come.
I’m glad that I documented those feelings because when I wrote the book, it was going back and forth, reading what I wrote, listening to the comments of the vets, and it came together as [the experience of] someone who has lost a pet.
How can we support our friends that are losing a pet without coming across as insensitive or dismissive of their feelings?
I’ve had friends that never lost a pet, yet they’ve been very kind to me in this process. I’ve had people who have never really had that relationship with a pet, and they said, “You know what? I’m excited for your book because I want to know how to understand and help my friends that lose a pet.”
“Sometimes you just have to give people a little bit of space.”
It’s like losing any loved one, when you’re kind of overwhelmed during that time.
I mentioned that we were not validated the day after we lost Wookie. One [unhelpful] thing is when people say something to you like, “It wasn’t your family member, it was just a pet.” You feel like you want to bop somebody!
I think a pet is the perfect definition of unconditional love. No matter what. It doesn’t matter what your hair looks like, it doesn’t matter if you’re sweaty because you’ve worked all day in the yard.
It doesn’t matter. When your pets sees you and you’ve developed this bond, they just love you.
What can you say about support animals?
Animals are used for emotional attention deficit or things like that, whether it’s riding a horse or petting a horse or seeing eye dogs—all the different things with soldiers, post-traumatic stress syndrome—it is unbelievable. The stories that you hear of how these animals bring back people from wanting to pull the plug.
“Their life had no purpose, and then being paired with these animals changes everything.”
Think about the fact that there are many, many people out there that their pet is their only family member, and I am not just talking older people. Younger people and everybody in between, sometimes that’s the only family member you have. The pet kind of intertwines and becomes part of your life in a different fashion.
If you’ve ever had a really, really rough day, and you are just quiet and that little cat or dog comes up to you and they sense it. I don’t know how they do it, but they sense you’ve had a rough day. They look at you and rub against you, or lick you or jump up next to you. What happens to your heart the moment that happens?
You know, we talk about sixth senses. I think when you have a pet companion, a pet family member, it’s almost like there’s a seventh sense. That unknown sense that only that little creature is going to be able to pull from you.
What lessons did Wookie teach you?
I think it’s something that built, but I would just see her continual patience. I would see her come up to me when I had a bad day, and maybe, I never said anything. (If you think about your pet, you talk to them all the time!) But sometimes if I wasn’t talking to her, that was her signal that, “She needs me. It’s time to go over there. Time to talk, time to give a kiss, time to hop on her lap,” or things like that. Just to watch her in action. She did this with everyone.
Something interesting to me was to see the reaction of the men in my life when we lost Wookie. My husband had lost pets and everything else, and we all tried to support each other. But at one point, a week or so after we lost Wookie, he just walked into the room and lost it.
[Society] thinks guys are just absolutely this big stoic creature that’s always strong and can handle everything that is piled on their shoulders. But there was a part of her sweet lovingness that fit into everybody’s needs to make them whole, to make them a better person.
What are some other things in the book that you want people to take away?
When you lose an animal, regardless of the way you lose them, your heart breaks. It’s hard. If you lose your pet in relation to a surgery, they ran away, they’re lost in natural disaster—there are elements of uncertainty involved in that, and when we don’t know something, it tends to magnify the pain.
We need to stop, and we need to say, “You know this is one of the things that happens in life.” Life companions death and bad things happen, but we are responsible for ourselves. We have to be able to get passed this. That’s where having tools, having information, having our feelings validated, to know it is going to hurt really intensely, especially upfront.
“And then, it’s going to gradually get better.”
That doesn’t mean that you won’t miss your pet. You won’t miss that interaction, that relationship you had, but you will get better. But taking the responsibility and doing very positive things for yourself can make a difference. If you dwell on it, it’s only going to fester worse.
What kind of positive things are you talking about?
I think one of the things to do is to get out and do good for other people. One of our kiddos was struggling and we told her, “You know what? Get out there and serve people. Get out there and do something good.”
And so she went and worked at a food bank and made all the difference in the world. When she would feel down, she’d say, “You know, it’s time for me to go work at the food bank.”
If you lose yourself in service and you are doing good things for others, you don’t dwell on what’s wrong with yourself.
How do you know if you are serving others to avoid that pain?
I think one of the things is in a sense to give yourself a pep talk.
“I am feeling bad. I don’t want to avoid this pain, but I need to get outside of myself.”
You have to take care of yourself. I mean you’ve got to work if you have a family. You have a family to take care of, you have a life to live.
Now this is interesting and this is very sentimental, but it is what I personally believe: Wookie would not want me to feel sad. I believe she would want me to cherish her memories.
How can we be better pet owners while they are alive?
One of the things is to really understand your pet and their needs. Just as we take care of ourselves medically, we need to do this for our pets as well.
Another thing that’s really, really important is to establish a good relationship with your veterinarian and their staff and to understand the path forward.
Maybe you’re a new pet owner, so you have to understand about their shots, you have to understand about their food.
It’s like getting a new baby. We are responsible for our pets. We are the advocate for them. We are the advocate for their quality of life, and that becomes very, very important at the end of our pet’s life. We sometimes have to make hard decisions in their behalf.
What kind of transformation are you hoping Missing Pieces, Broken Heart will provide for the reader?
I want the readers to know that the loss is a loss. It doesn’t matter who does and doesn’t validate that loss. You know how you feel, you know the love you have for your pet. That’s a gift. You have their memories, and your life was better because of them. You are going to feel that immense grief. You are going to feel your heart breaking.
I worked very hard to provide a definitive guide, a tool to help them understand the journey, and the course of recovery from the time it happens, through the first year, to getting a new pet, and that relationship with a veterinarian. Just like your own doctor, you need to have a good relationship with your veterinarian.
When things get rough and tough at the end and you have to make end of life decisions, it’s a lot easier when you have a veterinarian that is there to help you go through these decisions.
How does the book guide the reader through the emotional journey of losing a pet?
So you don’t feel alone and you understand what you are going through is normal. You see that it’s a process and that you take it day to day.
You can do all the steps and go through the whole journey, and there could be something that you just don’t expect that sets you back. That’s going to happen.
And sometimes, it won’t only bring a tear to your eye, but it can bring a smile to your face or a laugh. Now that it’s going on two years, it was tough but I wouldn’t trade that time with her for anything. It’s worth all the pain in the end to lose her, for the time that we had together.
Where can people connect with you and follow you online?
Bjrandolphllc.com talks about the book in great detail. You can order directly off of there, or on Amazon. We also have a lot of information for veterinary professionals so that they have their own links where they can purchase the book to distribute it to their clients and utilize it for their staff. This is very much a collaboration between a pet owner and the veterinarian.