Helping Adults Help Kids—Marsha Reed, B.S. and Charlotte Wallinga, Ph.D.
A Bond of Love
By Amir Shanan, DVM
The human-animal bond—it is that magical chemistry that has delighted, fascinated and intrigued the human race for centuries. Different than anything else in nature, it has evolved over thousands of years, as animals filled a wide variety of roles in the service of humankind. In the last several decades, however, it has become increasingly popular to keep animals whose primary and often only function is to be our companions.
The pressures of modern, mobile society have changed the nature of traditional support systems. Family, neighborly and community bonds have diminished. Frequent moves, single and/or childless adults and self care situations for children of working parents are common. The role of technology in our lives is relentlessly increasing, and more and more of us are living in urban areas. Our daily contact with Mother Nature, believed by leading researchers to be necessary for maintaining an emotional and spiritual balance, has been diminishing.
The relationships pet owners enjoy with their dogs, cats, horses, birds, and other animals can fill some of this void, and can be among the strongest and most important in their lives. Pets are described by their owners as children, parents, best friends, partners, and confidantes. Companion animals enhance and stabilize the lives of their owners with their constant presence and unconditional love. They are always available to their owners, and accept them regardless of appearances, feelings, or behaviors. The support they provide is credited – often with good reason – with pulling owners through the “rough spots” in their lives.
Relationships with animals play key roles in people’s daily routines. For many people, animals are primary sources of comfort and companionship, emotional and social support. Pets and their owners live and relax in each other’s company. They “eat, sleep, and breathe” together. The frequent contact contributes to the formation of strong feelings of attachment in people towards their companion animals.
Pets help us maintain a state of coexistence with the rest of creation. They provide limitless loyalty and unconditional love, and have become family to so many of us. We take great pleasure in making them happy, and experience all the emotions that come with a significant loss when they die or leave.
“Human-animal relationships may be perceived as stronger and more important when:
- Owners believe that they rescued their companion animals from death or near death.
- Owners believe that their companion animals “got them through” a difficult period in life.
- Owners spent their childhoods with their companion animals.
- Owners have relied on their companion animals as a very significant source of support.
- Owners anthropomorphize their companion animals.
- Owners have invested extensive time, effort, or financial resources into their companion animals’ long-term medical care.
- Owners view their companion animals as symbolic links to significant people who are no longer part of their lives (for example, children who have died or moved away, significant relationships or marriages that have ended) or to significant times in their lives (for example, futures that would be lived in the mountains, past times spent hiking, fishing, camping, etc).”
The services of Compassionate Veterinary Care’s veterinarians and staff are geared to protect and to enhance the human-animal bond. We’re there to offer treatment for illnesses and accidents when they occur during office hours, and to offer advice over the phone when emergencies occur at other times of the day or night. We encourage regular checkups and screening tests in order to prevent health problems whenever possible, and to detect others at an early and more treatable stage.
Last by not least, we are committed to offering terminally ill pets the best in medical treatment and comfort care. We offer their families support and assistance in deciding if and when euthanasia is called for. And we are committed to conducting euthanasia in the gentlest, most peaceful manner possible.
By Amir Shanan, DVM
Hospice medicine is a field specializing in caring for the terminally ill and their loved ones. In the past, veterinary attitudes towards the terminally ill involved little more than a recommendation to euthanize, often delivered at the same time as the terminal diagnosis. A working definition of animal suffering focused on single behavioral markers (e.g. loss of appetite or ability to walk).
Veterinary attitudes towards the family of the terminally ill pet ranged from belief that they can be “protected” from grief by being separated from their beloved companion before and during the time dying occurred – to denial and ridicule of family members’ sometimes very intense grief manifestations.
In the last decade, these attitudes have changed slowly but surely. Hotlines and support groups for individuals and families grieving the loss of a pet increased in number throughout the country. Susan Cohel at the Animal Medical Center in New York, the Changes program at Colorado State University and others established a model for social workers/grief therapists’ involvement in the day-to-day work of veterinary specialty and teaching hospitals, as well as other practices.
The hospice practice goal is to serve the needs of the terminally-ill and dying pet and his family. Its underlying philosophy is to acknowledge the inevitability of the impeding loss; to validate the impact of the loss on the survivors’ lives before, during and after it actually occurs; and to offer owners support services and treatment and comfort-care options, so they can make the most informed and best decisions for the care and treatment of their ill or dying pet.
Support services are particularly helpful at critical moments in the chain of events that the loss experience is made up of. Such sensitive times include the delivery of a terminal diagnosis; discussion of quality of life and standards or suffering; arriving at a euthanasia decision; the moment of witnessing or hearing about the pet’s death; after death follow-up by phone or in writing; and picking up the pet’s cremains (ashes).
Support services available are recognition and validation of owner vulnerability; grief education; assessment of the pet’s and owner’s quality of life in end-of-life consultations; and addressing owners’ spiritual and moral concerns.
As long as the pet’s quality of life is acceptable, the hospice practice’s focus is on medical and non-medical means for keeping her as free of discomfort and distress as possible. When owners don’t have the choice of good-quality life for their pets any longer, they are best served by the ability to make choices regarding how, where and when to hug and hold the pet for the last time.
Private hospital rooms enable pets to benefit from medical treatment not available at home, without sacrificing the love and comfort that owners provide. They enable owners to visit or even stay with their critically- or terminally-ill pet 24 hours a day, sparing some owners the emotionally traumatic experience of being apart from a hospitalized beloved pet during the pet’s last hours or days.
A comfort room in a veterinary facility is a space where owners can privately say good-bye to their pet, and grieve their loss at their own pace without feeling pressured to relinquish the exam room to a waiting patient. Comfort rooms are designed to offer the patient and family “the best of both worlds” – a fully equipped medical facility and the comfort and flexibility of home.
Euthanasia at home [or some other place with special significance to the owner and/or the pet] brings the experience of a pet dying by euthanasia closer to natural death. In the pet’s favorite spot, surrounded by his favorite people, the pet’s transition from life to death is as free of stress as possible.
Veterinary hospice practices, dedicated to offering services for terminally ill pets and their people, are few in number, defining this emerging field by their day-to-day activities.
Getting and Giving Support When a Pet Dies
By Gloria Roettger, M.S.
The other day while looking through sympathy cards at a local card shop, I found a special sympathy card for people who have experienced the death of a pet. I was very glad to see that and told the card shop owner. She indicated that more people were requesting sympathy cards for the death of a pet and that card companies were responding to the request.
I was pleased because that says to me that the death of a pet is being acknowledged as a very significant loss. More often than not, when someone has experienced a beloved pet death they are embarrassed to tell anyone of their grief. This embarrassment comes from the fact that some people, upon hearing of the pet’s death, respond to the loss in very unsupportive ways. They make comments like:
“It was only a dog”; “Just get another cat, they’re a dime a dozen”; “Your crying over your pet rabbit dying, for heaven’s sake!”; “You can always replace an animal, but never a person”; “You’re acting like that animal was a human being!”.
In working with people and animals I have found there are two very distinct types of people in the world. One type has a very special, unexplainable bond and love for animals that connects them together profoundly. These people usually have a distinct understanding and acceptance of animals. They often communicate with them in a special, non-verbal manner. Animals usually can identify these folks and are naturally drawn to them. In addition, these individuals who love animals in this way don’t think of themselves as “people”, per se, but have an acceptance of his or her essence as a living creature on earth.
The other type of people is those who see an animal as simple that-an animal. They do not have a bond of love for them in the same way. To them an animal’s place is somewhere below a human being. They simply do not understand why anyone would be so upset over the death of a pet. It makes no sense to them.
Being a member of the first group, I used to get quite upset with those of the second group. I have now come to a place of acceptance, though, of the difference without judgment of anyone. Basically, people see and relate to animals differently.
It is very important that you find a way to take care of yourself during this difficult time to help you move through the grieving process and be able to go on in life without your pet. If you don’t grieve the pet’s death due to feeling embarrassed of for fear of ridicule, your sadness may last longer and acceptance of the death may take a long time. Surround yourself with people who can be supportive of you at this time.
In our culture, when a family member dies we get funeral leave and time off work for a few days to cope with the loss. People send us flowers, bring food, do chores for us and call us on the phone to give us lots of support. When a pet dies, this kind of support is not always there for us. My suggestion is that if you do need some time off work—take it—and surround yourself with friends and family who love you and understand your loss and loved a pet too. Let yourself cry and let others, who will be supportive of you, know about the pet’s death. Don’t be afraid to say your pet has died and that is why you are crying. Sometimes it’s important to ask for support when it is needed.
Many people find it is very helpful to have a funeral service for the pet. One family I worked with had each person at the service tell of a particular special moment they remembered about the pet as a way of supporting each other and saying goodbye to the pet. Even if you don’t have a funeral service, some sort of closure experience is helpful and important.
What can you do for a friend or family member who has lost a pet? Tell them you are sorry and that you know how much the pet meant to them; cry with them; send a card or flowers or make a donation in the pet’s name: ask if there is anything you can do for them during this time: listen to them as people will often tell the story of the pet’s death over and over trying to make it more real for themselves and trying to accept it.
The one thing you can do that is most helpful is simply listen without saying anything. Realize that the person’s relationship with the pet was very special and is never replaceable. To say, “You can always get another pet”, may sound helpful to you, but it is very difficult for the person who is grieving to hear. They can’t “just get another cat or dog” to replace the one that has died.
And lastly, understand their grief and realize the significance of the love and bond that exists between a human and an animal. That bond is unique and very, very special.
Footprints on our Hearts
“Some come into our lives
And quietly go
And leave footprints on our hearts
And we are never, ever the same.”
–Alice Waugh Moore
Grieving the Loss of Your Pet Takes Time
By Gloria Roettger, M.S.
When you lost a pet – your beloved companion, best friend, confidant and, perhaps, the only creature on the whole earth who has truly never left your side on times of trouble – you feel like a part of you dies inside. The death of a pet is one of the most difficult losses you may ever feel.
Interestingly, many people say that the death of a pet was harder for them than when a family member died. That may sound strange, but animals love us in an unconditional way. They love without judgment or opinion and the constancy of their love knows no human being.
We have routines and behavior patterns with our pets that are unique to each pet’s personality. When that pet dies, the losses we notice right away are these routines.
How that wonderful ball of fur would nuzzle your neck every morning or how that big four-legged guy would practically knock you down on the way tot the door for his nightly walk. We miss their presence, their personality, their humor, their warmth—but most of all, we miss that special relationship.
As with any major loss, we experience a grieving process that comes in stages:
The first stage is shock and numbness. We can’t (or won’t) believe it…”It can’t be true,” “No, he can’t be dead.” It’s that unbelievable feeling of not wanting this to be real.
Next, we may feel anger; the anger could be directed towards another person, toward your veterinarian, toward God and very often towards the pet itself. We are angry because we don’t want this to happen. Anger is real and it’s okay to express it.
The most prominent feeling, however, is sadness. This part of the grieving process for a pet’s death is immediate and intense. People will often cry hard and for a long time. It’s important to cry; to allow yourself to feel the sadness. Crying helps the healing process.
Guilt is the next stage. You may feel like you should have done something differently, or like you didn’t do enough. It isn’t necessary to blame yourself. That only prolongs the grief.
Finally, you come to a place of acceptance of the pet’s death. At this stage you can begin to put the pet’s death into perspective in your life and see the loss as part of the process of growth and change.
Another stage I find specific to the loss of a pet is the memory phase. This lasts long after the pet has died and involves remembering very special times together. With that pet and the uniqueness of their personality, people often have many special stories to tell of the pet and their significance to their lives.
In all cases, it’s important to allow yourself to grieve and to experience your feelings. We do not go through these stages in order, but may experience them in various ways. You may feel an acceptance of your pet’s death and then one day, upon finding a lost toy belonging to them, cry all over again.
To grieve the death of your pet is rational and normal. It is a statement of your love for that pet and of the meaningfulness of your relationship with each other.
When Your Best Friend Dies
By Wendy L. Nelson
The death of a cat can be as devastating for an owner as the death of a human family member.
The veterinarian looked into Kitty’s eyes and stroked her behind her ears. “Her eyes look good – nice and clear,” he said. Susan, the cat’s owner, looked hopefully at the friends who had driven her and the injured cat to the clinic. The doctor gently picked up the end of Kitty’s tail. He raised and extended it, then let it go. The tail fell lifelessly onto the white examination table. “That’s not a good sign,” he said.
Feeling along the cat’s back, the veterinarian stopped at the base of her tail. He turned to face Susan. “I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do,” he said. “Her back is broken.”
Susan began to sob into Kitty’s black and white fur, and her friends gathered closer to try and calm her. Before they could help her, however, she abruptly said, “Do it. Just get it over with.”
As the veterinarian prepared the euthanasia injection, Susan asked if Kitty would be in any pain. “No,” the doctor replied. “She won’t even be scared; she’ll just feel as though she’s falling asleep.
Several minutes later, Susan was stroking her dead pet. One of her friends put an arm around Susan and softly suggested that the time had come to go home. “I can’t leave,” Susan said through her tears. “I can’t leave my Kitty.”
Susan was in shock and denial about her cat’s death. Later guilt would compound her grief. Kitty had been hit by a car a few minutes after escaping from the house; Susan had accidentally left the front door open.
When a special cat dies, its owner may need grief counseling to cope with the loss.
The death of a cat can be as devastating as the death of a human friend or family member can be, and the resulting grief can be just as intense. “Some people grieve more for their pets than they do for their relatives,” said Wendell Morse, executive director of the International Association of Pet Cemeteries, based in South Bend, IN.
Kathleen Dunn, a social worker at the Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, specializes in counseling grieving pet owners. “People who are experiencing this loss for the first time and having all these terrible feelings often think they’re going crazy,” she said.
The shock and denial Susan initially felt when her cat was euthanized were part of the normal mourning process that pet owners experience. Their grieving includes some of the same stages of grief that Elisabeth Kubler outlines in her book On Death and Dying.
“Most people ask for something to read about the pain they are experiencing,” Dunn said. In addition to the Kubler-Ross book, Dunn recommends When Your Pet Dies: How to Cope With Your Feelings by James E. Quackenbush. “The book reassures grieving owners; it gives them permission to cry and lets them know that they’re not going crazy,” she explained.
Grieving is an individualized process Dunn said, and everyone has his or her own way of dealing with a cat’s death. Mourning pet owners, however, experience some common stages:
Anger: Owners may direct anger at themselves for what they view as their own negligence—for example, not following a veterinarian’s orders or not getting treatment for an ailing cat. Or the anger may be toward a veterinarian for not being able to cure a sick or injured pet.
Guilt: An owner may feel this emotion for not following certain instructions or for going away on vacation when a cat was sick. For Susan, the guilty feelings were particularly intense because her negligence had led to her cat’s death.
Depression: Whatever the grieving person’s occupation – professional, student or homemaker – the upset caused by a cat’s death may disrupt thoughts, making concentration difficult. Other disruption of daily life may occur, such as sleeping problems (oversleeping or insomnia) and a change in eating patterns (overeating or lack of appetite).
The mourning cat owner may go through what Dunn called “waves of sadness,” accompanied by crying and feelings of hopelessness. The owner may feel listless and unmotivated, perhaps even questioning his or her ability to continue living without the cat. Most people work through these stages on their own, probably because they don’t know they have a choice. With continued interest in and research on the special bond between people and their pets, however, resources for the grieving cat owner are becoming more common.
“How Are You?”
Three women of different ages and backgrounds gathered in the waiting area of a veterinary hospital. Soon Kathleen Dunn greeted the women, asking each in turn, “How are you?” The question did not have the perfunctory politeness usually connected with it; Dunn’s face showed a genuine look of concern. She led the women into a small room, where she arranged chairs into a circle. The women had come to discuss their feelings and their losses at a support group for grieving pet owners run by Dunn at the Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.
Referring to a chalkboard on which she had outlined the stages of grief, Dunn asked each woman if she had experienced some or all the emotions. This way Dunn could evaluate the women’s progress through the mourning process. Then she explained the concept of the support group.
“The ideal thing is to be with people who have had pets and have lost them,” she said. “Many people will say, ‘Oh, for heaven’s sake, it was just a dog…or cat…or horse.’”
The women nodded their head sin agreement: Each had heard at least one comment referring to her lost pet as “just an animal.” Another common suggestion the women had received was to “just get another pet.”
Now that the women had found common ground, Dunn asked each to tell why she had come to the meeting. Cindy was a young military wife whose dog had been hit by a car four weeks earlier. Though she had attended a previous support-group meeting, Cindy returned at Dunn’s urging so the first-timers could see someone at a different stage in the mourning process.
Emily, who looked to be in her late 60’s, held a short article about the support group that had run in the local newspaper two days earlier, the day after Daisy, Emily’s 16-year-old cat, had died. Holly, the third member of the support group, had not yet been forced to cope with loss by was trying to decide if her lame horse should go through an expensive operation that was not guaranteed to cure him. The alternative was to have him put to sleep. Holly’s grief, though anticipatory, was just as real as the other women’s mourning.
At the end of the meeting, the women talked about how the session had helped them. “Having people to talk with, laugh with and cry with – people at your same level – is important,” Cindy said.
Holly agreed. “I feel better just being with people who don’t think I’m nuts,” she said.
When You Hurt
The idea of support groups for mourning pet owners is growing. Because of its pioneering work in grief counseling, the University of Pennsylvania veterinary hospital receives many inquiries. “I received a call this morning from a vet in another state who asked for help in setting up a support group,” Dunn said. “She will be working with a psychologist. Having a qualified therapist lead the group is important.”
Group therapy, however, is not for everybody. Some people have difficulty talking to a group of strangers or are uncomfortable showing their emotions in public. For this type of person, private, one-on-one therapy may be necessary.
How do you know if you need grief counseling? “I think that if you hurt, grief therapy can help,” Dunn said. “Talking to a qualified person when you hurt – whether the pain is from pet loss or from something else in your life – always helps.” Your veterinarian should be able to refer you to a grief worker or psychologist who has experience working with pet loss.
For the owner of a terminally ill cat, counseling can begin as soon as the illness is diagnosed. Such early therapy, according to Dunn, is the ideal situation: It allows the grief counselor to develop a relationship with the owner before the cat dies and gives the owner more time to prepare for the loss.
Decisions Through the Grief
When a cat dies, its owner must make some tough decisions while coping with the grief. For instance, what to have done with the remains of a cat may be difficult to think about at such an emotional time, but you must consider several options.
Many owners choose to bury their pets, either in their yards or in pet cemeteries. In some places, burying pets in yards is illegal; your veterinarian should be able to tell you whether such a law applies in your area.
You can find a listing of pet cemeteries in the Yellow Pages. Wendell Morse warned cat owners to make sure a cemetery belongs to the International Association of Pet Cemeteries. “Two situations exist: animal burial grounds and pet cemeteries,” he explained. “A pet cemetery follows standards set by the LAPC, and the staff becomes involved in the operation of the business. This contrasts the sort of situation where somebody goes out to the Back 40 and walks two paces this way and three that way, then digs a hold. That is not a pet cemetery.”
Burying a cat in a pet cemetery involves many costs; usually the plot, the casket and the marker each carries a separate fee. The cemetery also may charge you for digging the grave.
Often cremation is a more practical alternative to burial. Usually, a veterinarian or an animal hospital can perform the cremation or can arrange to have it done. Some pet cemeteries also can handle cremations, but beware: Many animal crematoriums do mass cremations, and then divide the ashes. If you don’t request an individual cremation, you may end up with the remains of other pets in addition to your own cat’s.
Like human cremains, ashes can be scattered in a meaningful place – perhaps where the cat liked to play – or can be stored in an urn. For an unusual memorial, a company called Everlasting Memories will mix a cat’s ashes with clay and sculpt the material into a lifelike feline figurine.
Some people choose to preserve their cats through taxidermy. Jim Mackrell of Mackrell Taxidermy Inc. in Pennsylvania is one of a few taxidermists who will work with pets. Because of the high cost of taxidermy and the difficulties of dealing with people in a highly emotional state, he said most taxidermists refuse pet owners seeking this service. If you are interested in the option, however, consult your local phone directory for a list of taxidermists.
To pay tribute to a cherished cat, consider holding a memorial service. Before burying Kitty in the backyard, Susan and her friends opened the box holding the cat’s remains, and each said goodbye. Even Hutton, the other cat in the household, approached Kitty and seemed to bid her farewell.
Kitty’s mourners lowered the box into the grave and took turns throwing in small shovelfuls of dirt. Tears flowed, and a moment of silence followed. Then the friends burned a candle and grieved through the night. These rituals helped Susan and her friends work through their grief.
Dunn agreed that rituals play an important role in helping a cat owner through the stages of mourning. “that is part of resolving grief – following through on all the customs – because pets are part of our families,” she said.
Recognizing the importance of rituals, the International Association of Pet Cemeteries has created a special day for pet owners who have experienced loss. Pet Memorial Day, held each year on the second Sunday of September, is a time set aside to allow people to gather in remembrance of their pets.
Some owners choose to remember their cats by creating living memorials, such as planting trees or flowerbeds. Another option is to contribute money to an animal hospital or other cause in the name of the deceased cat.
The death of a cat can be devastating, but if you work through the stages of grief and remember your cat in a special way, the pain will lessen, and acceptance will come.
Every day for weeks after Kitty’s death, Susan and her friends put fresh flowers on the cat’s grave. “It was a way of letting go,” said a friend. “Each day I looked at the grave and thought, okay, she died, but we haven’t forgotten her, and I have to go on. Owning a cat creates a bond, and each flower you put on your cat’s grave represents a piece of that bond of which you have to let go.”
Mourning Your Pet: Some Guidelines for Coping with the Death of a Pet
By Roxanne Phillips, M.A.
Some Guidelines for Coping with the Death of a Pet
A Letter from a Grieving Pet Owner
“A week ago I lost my beloved St. Bernard, Terry, to cancer. He was only 10 weeks old when I got him – a surprise for my 16th birthday.
For 12 years he was a part of my life. Now it’s very painful to come into the house and not find him here. His presence is everywhere. I don’t believe I will ever get over the ache his loss has left in my heart. Am I normal to feel this way?”
Just as human death disrupts family life, a pet’s death, whether by accident, fatal illness, natural death, or euthanasia, can be devastating also. The death of a pet can touch every member of the family – from heartbroken child to grieving adult. No, it’s not your imagination; some people in the same household can calmly accept the death of a beloved pet while other members have a much more difficult time emotionally.
It may be surprising to realize how quickly time has passed from kittenhood or puppyhood to old age. For a pet owner experiencing this, there may be some comfort in knowing that due to their good care and love, coupled with the pet’s good genes and some luck, they have helped contribute to the pet’s long and happy life. Other pet owners who have experienced the premature death of a pet from illness or accident often feel cheated, almost punished by the loss of the pet. Some pet owners have a hard time dealing with their pet’s limited life span. They view themselves as “good pet owners” only if their pet has an extremely long, record-setting life span. This simply is not true. No pet, regardless of how wonderful the care given, can life forever.
Psychologists who studied human attachments found that any unwilling separation or loss of objects of attachment gives rise to many forms of emotional distress and personality disturbances. Anger, loneliness, emptiness and guilt are the very feelings pet owners experience when their pet is suddenly gone.
The first step is to talk about the loss, what it means to you, how it happened, how this loss effects your life. Examine your attachments, both physically and emotionally.
Some family members will be more attached than others. Some see the pet as providing unconditional love and acceptance, or as a constant companion. For some there is a pride in ownership. For children, someone to play with. Pet ownership enables women and men to get in touch with their nurturing instincts. Some see the animal as a protector, a social asset (walking the dog gets you in contact with others in the neighborhood), a way to be outdoors more often. Some pets are a reminder of someone else. Losing this pet is like losing that someone special all over again.
Kenneth M. Keddir, an English psychologist who studied pet loss grief, found that in today’s mobile society pets are more than companions – they are surrogate relatives. It is a well-documented fact that talking to and touching pets can reduce blood pressure.
Death disrupts these attachments, but by understanding this you are on the way to working through the loss of your pet.
People who experience minimal ties are more likely to accept the pet’s death. However, those family members with stronger ties may feel the grief more deeply. They may experience frequent crying, feeling disorganized, guilt, anger at others or at other healthy pets in the household, anger toward the veterinarian and his or her helpers, or self-directed anger for not doing enough.
Usual Stages of Grief
- Numbness of feelings (We are in shock and experiencing denial.)
- Painful feelings:
Anger (At pet, vet, boss, husband, wife, driver of car, etc.)• Guilt (“I didn’t do enough for her.” “If only I had done more.” In cases of accidental death, blaming oneself for not watching pet more carefully.)
Depression (Feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, loss of appetite, sleep disturbances, lack of interest in daily activities.)
Grief pangs (Sudden mourning over pet’s dish or leash, or memories when you see another animal that reminds you of yours.)
- How long does grief last? (This varies according to the individual; there is not correct period of time for the grieving process.)
- Does anyone else feel this way? (Yes, yes, yes!!!)
- Think and talk about your relationship with your pet. (What kind of companion was your pet to you?)
- Express your feelings about the loss.
- Reach out to others (and this is important) who are sympathetic to and understanding of your loss. This is a death that not everyone is understanding about.
- “Why don’t you go out and get another one?”
- “Oh come on, it was only a dog/cat/etc.”
- “Well, that’s one less thing to worry about.”
- No response at all. (This is the worst.)
- Pet runs away or is lost.
- Need to get rid of pet because of a household member’s allergy to pet, or the pet’s serious behavior problem.
- Get a second opinion for your own peace of mind.
- Know what will and will not be done to your pet.
- Can your pet be cured?
- Know what “putting to sleep” really means to your veterinarian.
- First, be honest with the child – don’t say the pet went away. You could cause a fear of abandonment.
- What does pet mean to the child?
- Children react much as adults do. They experience disbelief/denial, anger, depression, and make attempts to rationalize the loss.
- Sally was mad at Fluffy and wanted her to go away forever. Later that week, Fluffy was hit by a car and died. Sally is terrified her wishful thinking caused Fluffy’s death.
- Harpo dies and nobody in the home seems to care (no outward emotion is expressed by family members) except me. If I die, this could happen to me too.
Two Commonly Asked Questions
Ways to Cope
Some Commonly Used Statements
Well-intentioned friends and relatives who don’t comprehend the intensity of the relationship of pet owner and pet will often make some of the following statements:
Other Kinds of Pet Loss
At this point, I want to mention that there are other kinds of pet loss (besides death) that are stressful to people:
These people may experience many similar emotional problems, as mentioned earlier.
If euthanasia has been recommended for your pet:
After the final decision has been made, you may or may not elect to stay with your pet. You also may wish to spend some time alone with your pet before or after. This is allowed.
Learn about your options for making arrangements for the body. Will your vet handle this or will you make arrangements with a pet cemetery for burial or cremation. Find out the laws in your community for burial in your yard. Do you want an autopsy?
About Children and Grief
Children experience the death of a pet much as adults do; however, there are some differences:
Also, they may have nightmares, insomnia, and may express anger toward siblings and playmates.
Children under five are still dealing with the stage psychologists call “magical thinking.” This is when they can’t quite comprehend what has happened. Two examples are:
Death is viewed as not permanent by children under five. They see it as being like sleeping. They could develop sleep disturbances and fear falling asleep for fear they will die too. These children should not see the pet being euthanized with a needle. This could cause a future fear of going to the doctor for shots. Provide these children with more support than explanation.
Children aged 5 to 9 personify death. They believe it happens to some but not to others. It depends on how good you are. Tell this child as directly as possible, but don’t give the child nightmares with morbid details. Encourage questions – don’t lie, but don’t horrify the child either. Saying a pet went to sleep could cause sleep disturbances in this age group too. Don’t say the pet was sick and died without explaining that not all illnesses result in death.
Pre-adolescents and adolescents that have difficulty adjusting to their own internal changes may experience a pet’s death as losing the only friend they ever had, or the only friend that ever understood and was there for them unconditionally. Sometimes this pet was in the household before they were born. They have never known a life without the pet. The loss can be devastating. Let the child talk about what the pet meant to him or her and how it will be missed.
Openly share feelings with all ages of children. Mourn together to show that grief is normal. Communicate to the child that you understand their grief.
©1989 Roxanne Phillips, M.A.
Pet Loss Counseling Service
The Last Will and Testament of an Extremely Distinguished Dog
By Eugene O’Neill
I, Silverdene Emblem O’Neill (familiarly known to my family, friends and acquaintances as Blemie) because of the burden of my years and infirmities is heavy upon me, and I realize the end of my life is near, do hereby bury my last will and testament in the mind of my Master. He will not know it is there until after I am dead. Then, remembering me in his loneliness, he will suddenly know of this testament, and I ask him then to inscribe it as a memorial to me.
I have little in the way of material things to leave. Dogs are wiser than men. They do not set great store upon things. They do not waste their days hoarding property. They do not ruin their sleep worrying about how to keep the objects they have, and to obtain the objects they have not. There is nothing of value I have to bequeath except my love and my faith. These I leave to all those who have loved me, and to Master and Mistress, who I know will mourn me most, to Freeman who has been so good to me, to Cyn and Roy and Willie and Naomi and…But if I should list all those who have loved me it would force my Master to write a book. Perhaps it is vain of me to boast when I am so near death, which returns all beasts and vanities to dust, but I have always been an extremely lovable dog.
I ask my Master and Mistress to remember me always, but not to grieve for me too long. In my life I have tried to be a comfort to them in time of sorrow, and a reason for added joy in their happiness. It is painful for me to think that even in death I should cause them pain. Let them remember that while no dog has ever had a happier life (and this I owe to their love and care for me), now that I have grown blind and deaf and lame, and even my sense of smell fails me so that a rabbit could be right under my nose and I might not know, my pride has sunk to a sick, bewildered humiliation. I feel life is taunting me with having over-lingered my welcome. It is time I said goodbye, before I become too sick a burden on myself and on those who love me.
It will be sorrow to leave them, but not a sorrow to die. Dogs do not fear death as men do. We accept it as part of life, not as something alien and terrible, which destroys life. What may come after death, who knows? I would like to believe with those of my fellow Dalmatians who are devout Mohammedans, that there is a Paradise where one is always young and full-bladdered; where all the day one dillies and dailies with an amorous multitude of hours, beautifully spotted; where jackrabbits that run fast, but not too fast, are as the sands of the desert; where each blissful hour is mealtime; where in long evenings there are a millions fireplaces with logs forever burning, and one curls oneself up and blinks into the flames and nods and dreams, remembering the old brave days on earth, and the love of one’s Master and Mistress.
I am afraid this is too much for even such a dog, as I am to expect. But peace, at last, is certain. Peace and long rest for weary old hear and head and limbs, and eternal sleep in the earth I have loved so well. Perhaps, after all, this is best.
One last request I earnestly make. I have heard my Mistress say, “When Blemie dies we must never have another dog. I love him so much I could never love another one.” Now I would ask her, for love of me, to have another. It would be a poor tribute to my memory never to have a dog again. What I would like to feel is that, having once had me in the family, now she cannot live without a dog! I have never had a narrow jealous spirit. I have always held that most dogs are good (and one cat, the black one I have permitted to share the living room rug during the evenings, whose affection I have tolerated in a kindly spirit, and in rare sentimental moods, ever reciprocated a trifle.) Some dogs, of course, are better than others. He can hardly be as well bred or as well mannered or as distinguished and handsome as I was in my prime. My Master and Mistress must not ask the impossible. But he will do his best, I am sure, and even his inevitable defects will help by comparison to keep my memory green. To him I bequeath my collar and leash and my overcoat and raincoat made to order in 1929 at Hermes in Paris. He can never wear them with the distinction I did, walking around the Place Vendome, or later along Park Avenue, all eyes fixed on me in admiration; but again, I am sure he will do his utmost not to appear a mere gauche provincial dog. Here on the ranch, he may prove himself quite worthy of comparison, in some respects. He will, I presume, come closer to jackrabbits than I have been able to in recent years. And for all his faults, I hereby wish him the happiness I know will be his in my old home.
One last word of farewell, dear Master and Mistress. Whenever you visit my grave, say to yourselves with regret but also with happiness in your hearts at the remembrance of my long happy life with you: “Here lies one who loved us and whom we loved.” No matter how deep my sleep I shall hear you, and not all the power of death can keep my spirit from wagging a grateful tail.
Eugene O’Neill wrote Blemie’s will as a comfort to his wife, Carlona, just before the dog died in its old age.
Helping Adults Help Kids, Tips to Help Adults Who Help Children Cope with the Death of a Pet
By Marsha Reed, B.S. and Charlotte Wallinga, Ph.D.
Examine your own concepts, fears and feelings regarding death, so that you can discuss death honestly and adequately with children.
Allow children to ask questions about death, and gear discussions to those questions. Giving more details than children are ready for or capable of understanding will add to confusion.
Relate discussions of a pet’s death to children’s previous experiences, such as dead bugs, leaves and animals they might have seen.
Describe death as the absence of life functions and experiences (breathing, eating, playing, feeling pain, etc.) rather than likening it to sleep. Children sometimes are afraid of going to sleep if they associate it with death.
Avoid euphemisms, like “He’s only resting,” or “She’s gone to a land far away.” These could lead children to believe that the pet will return or recover from death.
Remember, when introducing religious concepts related to death, that young children will have difficulty understanding abstract concepts that they have not yet experienced for themselves.
Acknowledge children’s grief and help them understand that it is alright to feel sad or angry and to express these emotions.
Wait until children have grieved over the death to add a new pet to the family.
Allow children to remember and talk about the many happy and special times with their pets.
Read children’s books that have been written about others who have had to cope with the death of a pet. Encourage children to talk with friends who have death with the death of a special pet.