The Loss of a Pet

How to cope with the grief

By Sherry Benoit

Pet ownership brings with it both joy and sorrow. Our companion animals can bring us both psychological and physical benefits; groom your pet and your blood pressure and stress levels drop, it has been proven that coronary patients who own pets live longer than those who don't, and pets become our confidants as well as our companions. We can talk to them but they never criticize, and the bond between an owner and their animal can become so strong that the dog may willingly die to save its master's life if asked to do so. The sorrow comes when the pet grows old and dies, as even the most long-lived breeds usually die long before their owners.

The pet owner who has suffered the loss of a pet can tell you that it was as if they lost a part of themselves. People who aren't pet owners cannot usually understand the great sense of loss that an individual feels when their companion animal dies. They may tell their friend, co-worker or family member to "Snap out of it", or "For goodness sake, it was only a dog" or "If you miss him that much, just get another". Often times they mean well, other times their behavior borders on rudeness and ignorance. They may allow the owner a day or two to experience their grief, but soon afterwards their patience and sympathy tends to run out. Sometimes they don't know how to deal with it, and they feel that it is better to avoid talking about the deceased pet so the owner can forget about it. These people do not realize that the loss of a pet is comparable in stress levels to the loss of a family member or close friend. Indeed, for many pet owners, the pet may have been closer than family or friends. You choose to bring this animal into your life, to share your home, to nurture it, much as you choose to have a child.

However, the pet is always there for you, it never leaves home, never criticizes or talks back to you, yet you can share your feelings and affection with it. It is impossible to forget about an animal that has shared your life and home. I know this from experience, as our first Bouvier, Juno, died in 1987. I still get tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat when I think of him, and I know that I will never forget him even though we had him for such a short time ( he was euthanized just one week short of his second birthday due to cancer). When we lost Yogi this past year, all the feelings associated with Juno's loss came rushing back, especially since Yogi was euthanized under similar circumstances.

We must accept that grieving for a pet is normal, and we must allow ourselves or the owner to take as much time as we or he or she needs to work through their grief and mourn their pet. Children need to be told, gently, that their pet has died. Some people try to protect their children by saying that the dog ran away or that it went to a new home. The uncertainty of what happened to their pet may be worse psychologically than saying that it has died. Don't tell young children that their pet is "sleeping" but it will never wake up. They may be afraid to fall asleep themselves in case the same thing

happens to them. If the animal is suffering and the vet recommends euthanasia then the decision should be discussed if at all possible before the act is carried out. Depending on the age of the children, it may be helpful to have a new pet join the family first.

Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her book "On Death and Dying" lists the 5 stages of grieving that are required before a person can accept the death.

Stage One is Denial and Isolation- the person denies that this is happening to them, may actively attempt to block it out and feels as if they are all alone in the world.

Stage Two is Anger- the person gets angry that this has happened to them. "Why me?" "Why couldn't this happen to them?" "The vet screwed up, my pet shouldn't have died!"

Stage Three is Bargaining- the bereaved person will try to bargain with God or themselves. "If only you let him live, I'll never do . . . again." "Please, let him live and I promise to fence the yard."

Stage Four is Depression- the length of this stage varies with the individual. Some people are only slightly depressed where others become so severely depressed that they cannot function. They may neglect to look after themselves, and they may avoid their friends and family.

The last stage, Stage Five is Acceptance. It occurs after each of the other stages is resolved.

There may also be some degree of guilt involved in the death of the animal, especially in cases where the animal has died due to an accident that could have been avoided. I feel that euthanasia also carried with it the burden of guilt to some degree. You feel that perhaps you may have given up too soon, or maybe you didn't try everything to save your pet, or in some instances, maybe the owner couldn't afford the expense in terms of both finances and emotional strain to care for the dying or seriously ill animal.

Do not try to second-guess your decision. Thinking that "He might not be dead if I kept him tied up", "I should have gotten help sooner", "Perhaps if I had noticed that he was ill earlier." These feelings of guilt will not help the situation any, and new information that might have allowed us to prevent the death shouldn't be allowed to add to the burden of guilt. Remember that your animal was only aware of your love and care. If you did make a mistake then learn from it and don't let it happen again.

Take the time to seek out friends that you know will understand your feelings; those that will allow you to talk about your animal friend. Talking about your feelings will allow you to mourn and accept your loss more quickly. Do not feel that you are being unfair to your pet by not extending the grieving period, that you must hold onto your feelings of sorrow to hang onto your pet.

If you have another pet in the home it can give you comfort at this time. Exercising and grooming it can reduce your stress levels. Again, do not feel guilty or unloyal to your deceased pet because you are still capable of enjoying

the company of your other dog, cat, or other pet. If you don't have another pet, don't shut yourself off from the enjoyment and companionship of ever owning another dog or pet. The strong bond and feelings that you feel for your pet are not diminished in any way when you bring another animal into your home. However, you alone must decide when you are ready for another pet. Some people feel that they must get another pet immediately while others need more time to mourn their loss. What is right for one person is not necessarily right for another so avoid comparing yourself with them.

I can remember talking to a lady who had lost her pet when it had been hit by a car. She loved and missed him so much that she felt that she couldn't get another dog of the same breed. A compassionate animal behaviorist pointed out to her that the love and comfort that she missed when her dog died was the greatest compliment that she could give him, and that she should seriously consider getting a dog of the same breed again, if what she liked about the breed and desired in a dog had not changed. No, she admitted, that she really enjoyed her Bouvier and felt that it was the only breed for her. But, she also knew that although there are many general breed characteristics that would be present in her new dog, that he would not be exactly like her other Bouvier, and she was able to accept that fact. I know that every one of my Bouviers is an individual, and I am sure that each one of yours also has their own "personality". But still, sometimes the antics of the new puppy can help to keep the memories of the old dog fresh in your mind.

I know from personal experience, that I wasn't sure that I was ready for another Bouvier after Juno died (I was one of those people who felt that I would never want another Bouvier), but Dutchie entered our lives just two weeks later at the insistence of my husband. For the first while we both would make occasional mistakes and accidentally call her "Juno". But she won me over with her Bouvier charms and I can't imagine not having her around.

And no, dealing with a loss is not any easier the second time around, and for some people it might even be much worse as it opens up old wounds. But remember, each one is unique and they will be loved, cherished and remembered for their own attributes.

There are Pet Loss Societies available in some areas, your local humane society might be able to give you the name and telephone number of the closest one.