Two weeks ago, my beloved guinea pig, Orwell, died. I expected to cope with the loss of my little companion much the same as any other pet death I'd experienced, but to my surprise have found this grief a lot more difficult. My heart aches for missing him.
Oberst (left) and Orwell (right), Samhain 2020
**Please note this blog post contains frank discussion of pet death and bereavement, and features a non-graphic image of a deceased guinea pig. He is lying on hay in the ground, with fruit and flowers around him, and appears as though he is asleep. Please proceed at your own discretion.**
I've been considering why his death may feel more painful right now, as a way to understand and accept my feelings. I realised I am not only grieving for him, but for his roommate, Oberst. When Oberst died, it came as a shock shortly after we'd moved house. He was rather unceremoniously buried beneath a paving stone in our weed-filled yard and any sadness was compartmentalised whilst we focussed on our new home. Orwell's passing not only brought its own pain, but opened the box of grief for Oberst that I had not yet allowed myself to feel.
I have also come to accept that I am not only mourning the loss of Orwell, but the loss of my role as a 'guinea pig parent'. There is now a large empty space in my home where their enclosure was, and an even bigger gap in my routine. Where I spent time and emotional energy cleaning their home, preparing fresh vegetables, collecting things they might enjoy playing with (a clean paper bag was always a favourite), and considering their wellbeing, there is now an expanse of empty availability. Those actions and thoughts were my love for them, which now has nowhere to go.
Orwell and I had a special bond. When my partner and I rescued him, he was incredibly poorly. The vets had us prepared for the worst and we were close to making the difficult decision to have him euthanised. However, with weekly vet visits, around the clock care, an adapted enclosure, and a lot of determination, Orwell only grew in strength. He was blind, tiny, and wobbled from neurological issues, but quickly became the boss of Oberst and of us, and his personality shone through. I'll forever cherish the time spent handfeeding him in the middle of the night, singing to him as he slept curled up in my jumper, and celebrating each milestone in his recovery. He gave us 4 and a half bonus years, for which I am forever grateful. Although he was elderly, and his passing was expected, I think his strength over the years had part of me convinced he'd live forever.
We gave Orwell a proper funeral and burial, because he deserved it, and to make up for the rushed internment of Oberst. We lay him on a bed of fresh hay and surrounded him with his favourite fruits and fresh flowers picked from the garden. We took a final photo of him, looking restful and loved. Looking at that photo has helped me to accept that he is really dead, and quieted the part of me that expects him to be sat in the garden where we buried him, grumpy and covered in soil. We stroked his fur, told him how proud we were of him and how we would miss him, and buried him with a hydrangea planted above. When the flowers bloom, I know I will think of him and smile.
I'm working on being kind to myself and neutral acceptance of how I'm feeling, and I've found that consciously adjusting my language has been of great help.
"I am coping badly"
"He was just my pet"
"This will hurt forever"
Compounding grief with shame or fear will only make it more painful. Accepting that I feel how I feel right now, and working to let those feelings happen without judgement has helped the difficult moments to pass more easily. I am allowed to be emotional. I am allowed to grieve a pet. My feelings right now won't be forever.
Finding a place to put my love for him has been useful too. The space in the garden where he is buried is 'his spot', and caring for the hydrangea will always be a way to remember him. I have a space for him on my altar where I keep a small plush guinea pig to squeeze when missing him hurts too much. He used to appear to me as an animal guide in meditations, and I hope he continues to do so when I am ready. We kept his bell toy to feel connected to him, as the sound of it jangling was quintessentially 'Orwell', and plan to donate the rest of their things to an animal rescue. My favourite way to honour him is in the care we give to our other rescue animals, especially the ones with health problems like him. One day, we might have space in our home and heart to adopt another. Knowing my relationship to Orwell endures even though he's gone is a comfort. He will always be with me through these small actions.
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