Losing a pet is not a trivial matter for many

Posted: Wednesday, February 16, 2000

Gypsy had been my loyal companion for over 16 years. She had slept with her head on my pillow after my divorce, licking the tears off my face. She went everywhere with me in the car, including sitting on my lap all the way from Alaska to Massachusetts and back. We had walked, hiked, biked and skied together. She had seen parts of my psyche and soul no one else had, and still loved me unconditionally. Now she lay on my husband's lap in our living room, semi-comatose, while the veterinarian prepared the injection to end her life. Even though I had begun the grieving process, and worked with my grief therapist on ``letting go'' of Gypsy, the depth of my sadness was profound. We had already discussed what we wanted to do with her body, and the weather cooperated. We loaded her into the backpack, hiked up to one of her favorite meadows, and laid her out in the fairy-like world of dense underbrush under a tall tree. There I hugged her an said my last goodbyes. It has been over six years since that sad day, and I still feel an ache in my heart as I write about it.

Was I crazy? Too emotional? Or just an overly attached pet owner? Luckily, having been educated about death, dying and bereavement, I knew I was normal and healthy. Death in any form is a difficult social issue - one that is often avoided and ignored. While pet loss and bereavement is now being recognized as significant as the death of any loved one, it still falls under the category of ``disenfranchised grief,'' a term used to describe grief not validated by society. Well-meaning but unhelpful comments I heard included, ``she was old and it was her time,'' ``just get another dog,'' or ``it's only an animal!'' However, in a recent survey of pet owners, 90 percent of the respondents rated their pet as an ``important or extremely important member of the family.'' The fact that animals live shorter lives than humans do, means the average pet owner will experience the death of at least two furry or feathered companions.

As with any other loss of a loved one, the intensity of the grief depends on several factors. The length and depth of the relationship between the animal and its owner(s), the circumstances surrounding the animal's death, the possible triggering of unresolved grief from previous losses and the individual's support system are just a few of the variables affecting the grieving process. Essentially, the greater the pet's role and importance in a person's life, the more likely its death will affect him or her deeply. Single people, childless couples, the disabled and the elderly often have extremely intimate relationships with their pets, including sharing their cars, couches and beds. Animals interweave their lives with ours, and that empty spot on the bed or a quiet house when you come home at night can be incredibly painful.

Animals provide us with companionship, protection, affection, exercise and the chance for one creature to care tenderly for another. Our pets love us unconditionally and forgive us completely. We may have never experienced these tremendous gifts before in our lives. These admirable qualities bring to mind a poignant bumper sticker, ``God, help me to be the person my dog thinks I am!''

Grieving the loss of a pet can be painful, but just as with other losses, cutting ourselves off from our feelings deprives us from experiencing our fullest capacity to love and embrace all of life. As is often said, ``What we can feel, we can heal.'' There are many books available about pet loss and several veterinary colleges offer 800 numbers with an experienced person at the other end just to listen. Talking to supportive people, creating the remembrance item like a photo collage, doing a personalized ritual or writing your beloved pet a letter are all ways to help you heal through the loss. Most importantly, we need to know we are not crazy or weak to mourn the loss of a pet. It is not a sign that something is wrong with us. A wise person once said, ``We grieve because we have loved and been loved.'' To share love with another is one of life's greatest gifts.

Wendy Hamilton has trained in grief counseling and death education, and is currently interning at Hospice and Home Care of Juneau as part of her Human Services degree program.

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