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Losing a Pet Is Painful -- No Matter Who You Are

Former First Family isn't alone in mourning the death of a pet

FRIDAY, Jan. 4, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- The prepared statement was brief and to the point.

"We are deeply saddened by Buddy's death. He was a loyal companion and brought us much joy. He will truly be missed."

Buddy, of course, was the chocolate Labrador owned by former President Bill Clinton and his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Buddy was struck and killed by a truck two days ago while playfully chasing after workmen leaving the family's New York home.

The Clintons' statement, though formal, must have reflected true and poignant feelings because the dog accompanied the former president everywhere, including on board Air Force One, where Buddy happily and regularly roamed the aisles.

The death of a pet is sometimes dismissed as an insignificant life event. But Dr. Larry Lachman, a Carmel, Calif., psychologist with specialties in family and animal behavior therapy, knows better.

"Pets give unconditional love, uninterrupted listening and the permission to touch and be touched. When those things are taken away, it can be more devastating than losing a relative," Lachman says.

The loss of a pet can be particularly hard for older people who may have already suffered many losses, including a spouse.

"When seniors lose a pet, they see their own mortality. Persuading them to let go can be heartbreaking," says Dr. Bernardine Cruz, a veterinarian at the University of California at Davis.

When a pet dies in an accident, even when owners have no real reason to feel guilty -- the Clintons, for instance, weren't home -- many still feel blameworthy, Lachman says.

And that can increase the grief. Owners often wrestle with the feeling that maybe there was something they should have done to prevent the death.

Also, adds Lachman, "in a violent or sudden death, there's an extra layer of trauma. You don't get a chance to say good-bye."

Choosing to euthanize an animal can be terribly troubling. Cruz says she devotes lots of time explaining to pet owners why euthanasia is often the kindest thing to do.

"I ask them to stand back and consider this," she says. "The pet has had a long and wonderful life. Now it is time to let them pass on with dignity -- quickly and painlessly. That is something that we all want for ourselves, and it's something we should want for the furry members of our family as well."

She gives pet owners the chance to be with the animal when it's put to sleep. But if an owner can't bear to watch, she assures them that's OK, too.

Lachman agrees with Cruz's approach to euthanasia, although he says it can put people in a quandary.

"You feel guilty if you don't [put a pet to sleep] because the pet is suffering. And you worry if you do that you've played God and cheated the pet out of a few more weeks, months or even years of happy life," he says.

No matter how a pet dies, getting over such a significant loss can take anywhere from six months to four years, Lachman believes. He recommends that people find comfort in talking to other pet lovers who will understand and create a protective cocoon.

He also suggests that grieving former pet owners consider joining a bereavement or pet-loss group in their area.

What To Do

For more of Lachman's advice, visit his Web site, which has a section devoted to pet bereavement. Other resources are offered by the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement.

Two good books on the subject are: "When Your Pet Dies: How To Cope With Your Feelings," by Jamie Quackenbush and Denise Graveline; and "Rubicon: Celebrating The Human-Animal Bond In Life and Death," by Julie Kaufman.

SOURCES: Interviews with Larry Lachman, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, family therapist and animal behavior consultant, Carmel, Calif.; Bernadine Cruz, DVM, veterinarian, instructor, University of California at Davis
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