"I feel I've lost a member of the family," says a teary-eyed woman whose well-loved spaniel has died.
And in a sense she has. Domestic pets -- most often dogs and cats, but also birds and fish or other animals -- can play a big part in human lives. When they die, they can leave a big gap as well.
The death of a pet often triggers the same kind of grieving process that follows the death of a relative or friend. But because the grief is for an animal, sometimes that process gets too little attention, and even less sympathetic understanding, from friends.
In a society that has found ways to shield itself from the powerful emotions death stirs, perhaps it is not surprising that many of us have also lost touch with the fact that there are many kinds of losses we need to recognize and mourn. Domestic animals, those creatures who amaze us by loving us despite all our faults and failings, are an obvious example.
A veterinary student at the University of California at Davis surveyed his fellow students and found that the dog and cat owners among them spent more than 30 hours a week in the company of their animals. Veterinarian students may be more involved with their pets than ordinary people, but that survey indicates how important the human-animal bond can be.
Dr. Lynette A. Hart of the Human-Animal Program at UC-Davis points out that for people who have few friends, losing a pet can be like losing a lifeline. Dogs, for instance, are very good at providing a social buffer for their human companions. When the person has time and attention to give to the dog, the animal can gear up the relationship -- and then somehow knows to back down or withdraw when the human is occupied with other things. When the animal dies, that dependable buffer is gone, too.
Charlene Douglas, a pet-loss counselor at the University of Washington in Pullman, has found that guilt is the most frequent complication she encounters in people are adjusting to the death of a pet.
Even the most conscientious owners feel that something they did contributed to the animal's death. In some cases the owner may feel guilty about not paying more attention to the pet. And sometimes, as Hart notes, the guilt may simply be the result of being unprepared for feeling so strongly about the loss -- and then feeling guilty that the reaction seems out of proportion.
Dealing with guilt is the hardest part of the counseling process, says Douglas, who works with the College of Veterinary Medicine's People-Pet Partnership. "People always feel it's their fault," she says. "We try to get some reality in. We tell them they didn't do it; the disease did it or the accident did it."
Most people, she says, simply "need to know their feelings are normal, that they shouldn't feel guilty about their feelings."
If you lose a pet, don't be surprised if you find yourself going through the same classic stages that characterize the grieving process in general, including anger, denial and guilt, before eventually coming to terms with the loss.
Douglas says that many people just need someone to talk to about their reaction to the death -- in which case one or two telephone conversations is all they need. But in other cases -- where people are deeply attached to an animal or dependent on it, as in the case of a service animal for a disabled person -- the mourning process, and the counseling, may take more time.
In recent years, pet-loss hotlines and support groups have sprouted up around the country. A pet-loss directory, a list of such resources, is available for $7.50 from the Delta Society, 321 Burnett Ave. South, Third Floor, Renton, Wash. 98055-2569, or P.O. Box 1080, Renton, Wash. 98057-1080. Or call (206) 226-7357.