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7 Tips for Dealing with Death

Quiet as it’s kept, sanctuary people must become experts at going on while mourning. Everybody dies, eventually, and the more willing you are to welcome elders or those whose bodies have been ravaged by trauma into your community, the more frequently you will be called upon to continue caring for others while grieving someone you loved. Here are some of the things we’ve learned, over the years, about how to cope. While these tips are rooted in our experiences mourning nonhuman animals in a sanctuary setting, they should be helpful to anybody grieving anyone and especially helpful to those who encounter death frequently in the course of care-giving work.

1. Feel and Express Your Feelings.
You may have had to mute your feelings during the death itself or in order to do what needed to be done in the aftermath. But you dare not remain numb too long. Make time and find ways to fully experience whatever you are feeling. You may need to do this deliberately, by playing music, looking at photographs, or bringing the beloved departed one to mind. You don’t want pent-up feelings to be stuck in your body, but you also don’t want to get stuck in the feelings, so make sure to express them in some way, such as words, music, or movement. Pouring your emotions into practical actions can be a useful way to express yourself while also serving as an antidote to feelings of helplessness.

2. Be Mindful of Other Mourners
Chances are, you’re not alone in your sorrow. You may not have the energy to extend solace to others, but remembering them will remind you that you are not alone. Either way, remember that people grieve variably. Some sob. Others rage. Many go very still and silent while others make silly or angry jokes. Do not expect yourself or anyone else to conform to some ideal of mourning, but do try to refrain from any words or gestures that might compound somebody else’s grief, Also remember that your fellow mourners may not all be human. Include nonhuman others when seeking communion.

3. Avoid Shame Blaming
If this was a preventable death, it may be necessary to figure out what happened in order to prevent the same thing happening again. Even if nobody was responsible for this death, you may feel regret for some failing, on your part or on the part of some other person, in relation to the beloved departed one. Taking responsibility for errors or other failings can be difficult in the best of circumstances and can feel impossibly anguishing in the wake of a death. Try to remember that anger is almost always an element of grief. Try not to let that anger leak into any self-examination or collective accountability process.

4. Go Outside (*)
Look down. Touch whatever you can without disturbing anybody. How old is that rock? How young is that insect? How far down do the roots of that plant reach, stretch stretch stretching for water and minerals? Let this remind you of the persistence and diversity of life. Look up. Listen. What’s happening in the sky? Are there birds flying by? Can you feel a breeze or see the clouds moving? Let this remind you that change is incessant. This too, truly, shall pass. You will too. So: What do you want to do with whatever time you have left?

5. Decide What You Will Carry Forward
Choose a characteristic or habit of the beloved departed one and decide how you will incorporate that into your own life, so that they will, in some way, live on in you.

6. Do Something in Remembrance
Don’t rush to do this unless you already know exactly what to do. Otherwise, take some time to think how you will memorialize the one you have lost, either privately or publicly.

7. Draw Closer to Those Who Remain
This is listed last but should be done as soon as possible and forever thereafter. You may feel the wish to retreat from relationships, and especially from relationships with those like the one you have just lost, but this impulse must be resisted. You hurt because you are a social animal who has lost an important relationship. Do not further impoverish yourself by retreating from other relationships. Instead, make those relationships even more rich, by lavishing the love and care that would have gone to the departed one on some other or others.

(*) This is not difficult at most sanctuaries. If you live in a city and are using these guidelines from some other sort of loss, you may need to make an effort to get yourself somewhere green… and it will be even more important for you to do so. Take a bus to the countryside if you can. Otherwise, make your way to the nearest urban park, community garden, or vacant lot. If even that is impossible, try to find some weeds growing in an alleyway or some grass inexplicably coming up through the cracks in a sidewalk.

6 comments to 7 Tips for Dealing with Death

  • Thank you so much for this outstanding post. I can absolutely say that your suggestions are spot-on, based on my experience of losing my husband to an accident almost two years ago, and the experience of losing many dogs and cats over the years. Your #5 and #6 were perhaps most important to me in responding to my husband’s death: I established the Gregory J. Reiter Memorial Fund in his honor, to continue supporting animal rescue, veganism, and wildlife conservation – all causes we had actively supported together during his life.
  • dianne mcknight
    Beautifully expressed and I will remember. Thank you.
  • Lovely words pattrice – thank you for putting this so succinctly.
    One of the very first lessons I had to learn when I began living with the rescued and unwanted in 1999 was that deaths are inevitable and can happen despite all the care and attention you give a sick being. And sometimes death comes suddenly and inexplicably. It is always heartbreaking to lose someone.
    I recall the death of a drake who along with his brother came to live with me in the early years of A Poultry Place. They lived in my driveway, which is how they became know as The Driveway Boys. They would spend their days fossicking amongst the grass verges of the driveway for bugs, returning each evening to their house at the top of the driveway. They were inseparable and wanted nothing to do with other ducks. Apart from the time one of them had to be locked up for a couple of days as he had an injured leg they were never separated. Throughout that ordeal his brother called for him constantly and spent his day sitting outside where he was recuperating.
    Late one afternoon in mid-August 2007 I wondered why they weren’t milling around the door of their house to go in for the evening, as was their habit. Upon investigation I found a sad scene – one of the Driveways Boys was dead – his mate was sitting beside him calling. During the next couple of days the remaining drake sat where his brother had laid dead. He chose not to interact with any of the other ducks. I began to worry about him even though he was still eating and showed no signs of illness. He was exhibiting the signs of depression – he was withdrawn, uninterested in his surroundings and had even stopped chasing bugs. Nothing I did would bring him out of it. He was not interested in befriending other ducks and I felt completely helpless. Almost six weeks after his brother died he began not venturing out of his house when I opened the door in the morning, he just sat there. Two days later he was dead. It would appear he died of a broken heart.
  • pattrice
    Bede, thank you for sharing the story of the Driveway Boys. It reminded me of Jean-Paul and Jean-Claude, a bonded pair of drakes who had been rescued from the foie gras industry. They were partners in all ways for many years until one weakened and died due to liver disease and the other, who had seemed perfectly hardy and healthy, followed his partner into the thereafter within a week.
  • Patricia
    Needed to see this so much today in my inbox.
    Thank you. This helps and will continue to.
  • Holly Pearson
    Thank you for this. I found #4 to be perfect. Nothing is more consoling than the natural world (except when one thinks about how we are despoiling it). I would love to know what you have to say about euthanasia -when one should begin considering it to limit suffering. After all, isn’t that what we are working to do everyday. I’m on the side of nature but I never understood, “let nature take it’s course”. To be clear, I’m talking about humane death for ALL animals, including human ones.

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