Santa Fe grief counselor Janice Barsky decided there was a need for a pet loss support group when a woman who had been hospitalized from traumatic grief over the death of her dog showed up at a hospice grief support group meeting she was facilitating. The group was outraged at the woman’s attendance, along the lines of “How dare you sit there and talk about the loss of your pooch, when I lost my husband of 50 years,” said Barsky. The woman never returned.
When people don’t get support from society for their loss, they experience what’s called disenfranchised grief. Those who are uncomfortable talking about death, don’t know what to say, or are truly careless, may dismiss another’s loss, saying it was just a dog or it was only a cat. Yet the pain is very real, sometimes debilitating, and requires time to heal.
“Nothing is quite so devastating as losing a pet,” said Jon Marr, owner of Braemarr’s Loving Care Pet Cemetery and Crematory in Santa Fe. “They love us so utterly, unconditionally and without judgment under every and all circumstances, it’s small wonder our pets often become our closest companions as we travel this road of life.”
“There’s just something special about a person who’s willing to emotionally invest in a creature, let them so deep into their heart and form that strong bond, knowing, at some level, in all likelihood they’re going to outlive them,” said Barsky.
With that deep love comes deep loss when the animal dies, and pet owners find different ways to cope.
Marilyn Saltzman, general manager of Best Friends Pet Services in Albuquerque, which provides cremation, memorialization, and tributes for pets, sees different emotional reactions for the loss of human versus animal family members. When a pet dies, it is a highly emotional time, and gradually the grief diminishes. With a human death, often the family is in shock as they make funeral arrangements, then grief intensifies as the days go by.
“The key to remember is grief is normal and you’ll move through it. It feels sometimes like you won’t, but you will,” said Ann Beyke, an Albuquerque counselor who specializes in pet loss grief. Common emotions, besides profound sadness, include anger, guilt, and depression.
Beyond losing the love of the animal, the pet represents cycles of life. Duffy Swan, president of French Mortuary, which owns Best Friends Pet Services, spoke of a kitten that was a present to his daughter for her fourth birthday. The cat moved with the family to several cities and was always there as the daughter grew up and then got married. He thought the son-in-law would take the cat with his daughter, but no, the cat, which lived to the age of 19, stayed with Swan and his wife.
When the cat was ailing, Swan held it as it was euthanized. “I wasn’t that close to the cat, but after I left the vet’s, I had this sense of being blue,” Swan said. “I later realized that cat was the last living link to my four-year old daughter, and it was the end of an era.”
Counselors Barsky and Beyke agree that talking about the loss with sympathetic people helps to heal the grief.
“I can always tell when a person is getting better in any kind of kind of grief, because they start wanting to help others,” said Barsky. “That they even notice someone else’s distress is a sign of great progress.”
Observed Beyke, “Just knowing that others have felt the same thing, are grieving the same way, having the same questions and getting the support of others is essential during a time like this.”
Here are some tips they offer on grieving the loss of a pet:
Allow yourself to mourn. Tears are natural. Don’t apologize for feeling the way you do.
Do what feels right for you. Don’t be afraid to insist on what you need from the vet before a pet is euthanized, such as holding and talking to the animal.
Change your routine. If you have always taken a walk with your dog at 6:00 a.m., schedule a different activity at that time.
Seek supportive people. Avoid those who don’t understand or say hurtful things.
Take care of yourself. Grief goes to a physical level quickly. Avoid making yourself sick.
Push the envelope toward healing. If it’s too painful to look at photos of a deceased pet, put it off, but go back again later. It will get easier.
Don’t beat yourself up or replay guilt tapes. “If only…” thoughts drain your emotional energy and interfere with the healing process.
Wait six months before getting another animal. It’s not a set rule, but if you get a replacement pet right away, you might not bond well with the new one.
Get professional help if you need it. Online resources include the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement (www.aplb.org) with online chats five days a week or memorial sites such as Rainbow Bridge (www.rainbowbridge.org), a site for pet owners to memorialize their deceased animal companions.