When a Pet Dies

Friends and family may not understand the depth of the grief you feel over the loss of a beloved pet. Here are some ways to cope.

Momi Correa's love affair with her Siamese cat, Suzuki, went deeper and lasted longer than any relationship she ever had with a man. Nearly two decades ago, when she was working in Guam as a Polynesian dancer, Correa found the weeks-old kitten in the discarded tire of an old Suzuki. A few years later, when she relocated to Hawaii, there was no question but that she would bring Suzuki with her. The cat had to undergo a four-month quarantine to get his travel papers; Correa drove two hours each day to visit him.

"We were together for 17 years," Correa says. "For six of those years, I was in a very abusive relationship, and Suzuki was a great comfort. When I was sad, he would bump his head against mine as if to say, 'It's going to be okay, I'm here.' Even when I couldn't find housing because landlords wouldn't accept cats, I vowed never to give Suzuki away. I was very attached to him, like he was to me."

But in January, she finally had to say goodbye. Suzuki was sick and suffering, and Correa made the excruciating decision to put him to sleep. She cradled her pet as the veterinarian gave him the injection. "I put my face on his cheek and told him to go ahead, and that I loved him and thanked him," she says. "And then he was gone."

Lack of sympathy

Correa still cries when she talks about her cat. But she considers herself lucky: She had Suzuki's love in her life, and now she has the support of friends who understand her grief. Too often, when pets die, their bereaved companions are met with bafflement or impatience from friends and family.

"Many people are told that they shouldn't be feeling so intensely because it was 'only' a dog or 'only' a cat," says Florida psychologist Matt Zimmerman, who specializes in grief counseling for owners who lose favorite pets. "But this may have been one of the most significant relationships in their lives. It doesn't matter to them that [their loved one] had four legs instead of two."

In fact, say psychologists, people who lose a beloved animal almost always feel genuine and deep grief. Fortunately, if you're suffering, some simple steps can help.

Expect to go through stages of mourning, say Jamie Quackenbush and Denise Graveline, the authors of When Your Pet Dies: How to Cope With Your Feelings. The stages loosely correspond to those described by pioneering grief psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (author of On Death and Dying) in people who lose someone they love or who are facing death themselves.

Often, guilt comes first, Quackenbush and Graveline say. This is particularly likely when a pet has to be euthanized, but even when the end comes naturally, you may feel as though you should have done more to ease the animal's suffering. If you did everything in your power to give your pet a good life and a gentle death, acknowledge your own efforts and good faith, the authors say. Be kind to yourself. A pet owner's guilt may give way to fury at a trusted veterinarian for not being able to save their pet. You may even be angry at your pet for dying.

Denial frequently comes into play as well, because it can be hard to adjust to the fact that your companion is really gone. For some time, you may catch yourself expecting to see your cat or dog make its accustomed appearance at mealtime, or to hear a bark, meow, or other signature communication.

Talking about the loss

Lastly, deep sadness may turn into a temporary depression, so don't be surprised if it happens to you. After all, a significant part of your life is gone. However, if depression persists for more than three weeks, interrupts daily activities, or is accompanied by thoughts of harming yourself, you should consult a doctor or counselor.

No matter where you are in your grieving process, says psychologist Zimmerman, talking about your loss with supportive people is the most effective way to move through it. Your friends and family needn't understand your loss to empathize with it. If someone close to you tries to minimize the importance of what you're going through, explain that you've lost one of the most important relationships in your life, and are feeling what he or she would feel in such circumstances.

"Reach out to other people who have been there and let them carry you," says Correa. "The important thing is to not close up for a long period of time and get locked in the sorrow."

If you're unable to find comfort from the people around you, look for community elsewhere. Teresa Weggans' family didn't understand her sadness after her ailing 3-year-old German shepherd was put to sleep. Lady had been the Weggans' guard dog and round-the-clock companion for only two years, but her passing left the Ohio woman heartsick and forlorn. "My husband uses the old cliche 'She was just a dog,' and my mom thinks I'm grieving too much," says Weggans. "What they don't understand was that Lady was my soul mate. It was almost like losing one of my own children."

Fortunately, Weggans did find help, by way of her computer keyboard. A number of Internet sites have sprung up to provide comfort to grieving pet owners. The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement Inc.(http://www.aplb.org), In Memory of Pets (http://www.in-memory-of-pets.com), and PetLoss.com (http://www.petloss.com) are among the most popular sites. Here, individuals post memorials to lost pets, exchange referrals to pet grief support groups and counselors, and talk openly about their experiences.

Supportive friends, whether in the flesh or on the screen, can give you permission to grieve, says Zimmerman -- but don't forget to live. In times of mourning, it's more important than ever to take care of yourself. Make sure to maintain healthy eating habits, even if you have no appetite. Get plenty of rest. Remember to exercise: Don't give up your outdoor time because your dog no longer needs his. Even something as simple as a brisk walk can do wonders to lift your mood. As much as possible, continue your normal routine, because structure can help you regain your bearings. Don't rush to adopt another animal or find new activities to fill the void left by your pet's death. The grieving period may take time; you will eventually reach closure and find it easier to move on.

A healing ritual

Finally, says Zimmerman, it can be healing to perform a ritual when you feel the time is right. Some people arrange for a ceremony at a pet cemetery with friends and family. Others create small shrines in memory of their pets.

Momi Correa buried Suzuki with his favorite toys in a dear friend's back yard. She chose a heart-shaped memorial stone for his grave marker. She painted the stone a deep red, decorated it with her favorite photo of Suzuki, and added an inscription: "Here is where my heart lies."

Since the ceremony, Correa's grief is slowly lifting. The vet who cared for Suzuki in his final days recently asked Correa if she'd consider adopting Lucky, a stray Siamese kitten who had been picked up with a badly broken leg. "I love this vet," says Correa, who is aware that the kitten's paw may need to be amputated. "He said, 'Your home is the only place this cat could be.' I'm going to adopt him in about two weeks."

Further Resources

The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement (APLB) P.O Box 106 Brooklyn, NY 11230 718/382-0690 aplb@aplb.org http://www.aplb.org

References

Quackenbush, Jamie and Denise Graveline. When Your Pet Dies: How to Cope With Your Feelings, Simon and Schuster, New York.

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