Coping with the emptiness left behind

Written By Alison Landis Stone

Editor-in-chief of Healthy Pet

Before my husband and I got a dog, I had to work through my fears of losing a pet. It felt sort of silly that I was worried about dealing with the death of a pet before we even found one to give a home to. But I'd already lost my childhood dog, and I'd witnessed how devastating the loss was to my father, who had taken care of Blackjack for several years after I moved out of the house. At 16 years of age and suffering from numerous ailments, Blackjack was nearing the end of his natural life when my dad made the heart-wrenching decision to have him euthanized. Our dog limped around from an old ankle injury that got more and more difficult to deal with as he aged, and he couldn't see because of the cataracts clouding his vision. When Blackjack became incontinent, my father decided it was time to let our dog go.


For most pet owners, the connection we have with our pets is often as strong as or stronger than our relationships with other people. "Many people say that animals provide us with a type of companionship and emotional intimacy that humans can't quite manage to provide for each other," says Jeannie Moga, MA, MSW, LICSW, director of social work services at the University of Minnesota's Veterinary Medical Center. "Humans struggle to give of themselves this freely and without expectation or judgment." This bond goes beyond words; it explains the way we feel when we hold our pets in our lap, the pleasure we get in watching them enjoy life so fully and how they just always seem to know when we need comfort. The close bond we share with our pets can make it seem impossible to cope with the loss when a pet dies. "The human-pet relationship has a great level of intimacy," says Stephanie LaFarge, PHD, senior director of counseling for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and a psychologist who specializes in the human-animal bond. "Once the animal isn't in the house anymore the emptiness is huge." Moga agrees. "People who enjoy this kind of intimate and supportive relationship with animals will keenly grieve the loss of those animals," she says.


The relationship between pet and owner has changed significantly in recent years. "Pets have gone from the backyard to the bedroom," Dr. LaFarge says. "As a result, our culture is moving toward an acknowledgment that our relationships with our companion animals are important." We are concerned for their well being, much the way parents watch out for their children. We make sure our pets receive the best food, the highest quality medical care, and plenty of toys to keep their body and minds busy. We drop them off at daycare, take them on long walks, and let them run to their hearts' content in dog parks. There is even a new term for us: pet-parents. But although society is beginning to accept that the owner-pet relationship is important, many people who don't share their lives with pets don't understand how special these relationships are. "Our culture does not acknowledge that when an animal dies, it's as important a loss as that of a person," explains Dr. LaFarge. "There is a lack of acknowledgment in our society that our relationship with each pet is unique and can't be replaced." "There isn't a lot of social support for the relationship or the grief process that results from its loss,” says Moga. "It can be tough for folks who have not experienced a meaningful relationship with an animal to understand why these relationships are so emotional and sometimes physically important to people."


The death of a pet is often emotionally overwhelming. For the first several weeks afterward, it's normal for grieving pet-parents to not eat or sleep well. They may even hallucinate, thinking they see or hear the pet in the house. After some time, people start to feel bittersweet pain when remembering their loved one. Eventually Dr. LaFarge says, they realize the pet "is still part of their being because when they think about him or her, remembering feels good." It's not unusual for people to feel like they will never get over a loss. How long does it take to start feeling normal again? "There is no agreed upon timetable for grief. Every individual's process will be unique," Moga says. "The key is to realize that our goal is not to 'get over' the loss of a pet, but to learn how to live with how our lives change when an animal leaves us. When we are able to rejoice in memories of them and can recognize how our relationship with them changed us for the better, those are signs that the grief is starting to resolve. Getting to this point may take many months or even years. Sometimes bereavement can last well beyond when the grieving process should have resolved. Called a pathological grief response, this happens when a person can't get past hi or her grief even though a long time has passed. "It's like having an infection you can't get rid of, "Dr. LaFarge explains.”The loss of the pet triggers other types of mental distress. At this point, it's no longer about the animal. The symptoms of pathological grief are similar to those of the early stages of normal grief, such as crying, desperate yearning for the pet, difficulty acknowledging the death, impaired social and occupational functioning, and an inability to concentrate. A mental health professional can help resolve this type of grief.


For responsible pet owners who take care of their animals, a pet's death can bring on feelings of guilt, especially if the pet died suddenly or tragically. "It's rare for people who lose a pet not to feel guilty afterward because we feel like we should be able to prevent bad things from happening to those we love," says Moga. "Regardless of the situation, there are a couple of things to keep in mind: First, it is not for lack of love that tragedy occurs. Second, when awful things happen, and they sometimes do, it is important to remind ourselves of the countless things we've done right for our animals."


Sometimes the owner might begin grieving even before the pet dies. This reaction is especially common when a pet is suffering from a terminal disease or if the pet's quality of life is declining. If you’re concerned about your pet's health, talk to your veterinarian about your options. Depending on the circumstances, he or she might discuss euthanasia as a possible avenue for alleviating your pet's pain. Even in a situation where a pet is obliviously suffering, deciding whether to end a pet's life is never easy and can be devastating to caring owners. "Making a decision to euthanize an animal is almost as heart-wrenching and complicated, and should never be taken lightly," says Moga. "People need to weigh all the medical, behavioral, and emotional factors involved to determine when it is appropriate to facilitate death." Owners should communicate any concerns or requests to their veterinarian.


When you have experienced the loss of a beloved pet, finding a network of supportive people who can listen and sympathize can help you cope better during this difficult time. "I think people are more able to work through the death of a loved one when they have abundant social and emotional support for that process," Moga says. If you can, talk with other people who have gone through or are dealing with similar experiences. Family members and friends may be sympathetic, especially if they knew your pet or have pets of their own. Coworkers who have pets may also offer comfort. Many veterinary hospitals, shelters, and universities provide pet loss hotlines, where you can talk with professionals who have been trained to help others cope with the loss of a pet. These same organizations may also offer support groups. Ask your veterinarian if he or she can recommend a local group.


All cultures have traditions they follow when a loved one passes on. Although our society has not set up standard rituals to mark the passing of companion animals, pet parents may find comfort in honoring their pets and saying goodbye in a special way.

Hold a memorial service: Ask family and friends to join you as you remember you’re pet.

Create a living memorial: Plant a tree or flower in your yard in memory of your pet.

Share your memories: Make a scrapbook, write a poem or stroy, or just talk to people about your pet and the time you spent together.

Make a donation in your pet's name: By donating your time or money to a naitional or local shelter, you can honor your pet and help give other pets much-needed support.

Keep something that was special to your pet: Consider setting his or her favorite toy on a shelf or framing a favorite blanket. Keeping his or her ID tags on your key ring can also help keep a part of your pet close to you.

Where to Turn

In addition to asking your veterinarian for advice and recommendations, you can find support for coping with the death of your pet through pet loss groups, books, and online communities. In addition, many veterinary colleges have trained professionals you can talk to. Also available are pet loss hotlines and one-on-one phone counseling, such as ASPCA offers.


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