When a pet dies

Emotions: People should not feel embarrassed to mourn the loss of an animal companion, experts insist

Family Matters

April 09, 2000|By Bettijane Levine | By Bettijane Levine,Llos Angeles Times

There is no cure for grief. When a cherished family pet dies, the loss can overwhelm you despite all attempts to cope.

If you are like most humans, you may be slightly embarrassed by all this. "Am I crazy, or what?" asks the grief-stricken family member who still breaks into tears months after the event -- or who continues to "see" the departed animal playing in the garden or curled on the bed. Months or years may pass, but the sense of sadness and loss, the desire to be close to that adored animal, does not lessen as one might expect.

You are not "crazy" and you should not be embarrassed, experts agree. Many humans feel the same sense of bereavement for lost pets as they do for people who die. "From a psychological point of view, there is no difference between the loss of an animal companion and a human companion for those who have very strong bonds with their pets," said Dr. Lorri Greene, a licensed psychologist and pet-grief therapist in San Diego. Her statement alone is enough to make some people cringe. They don't believe in inter-species grief. They don't want to hear about your sadness, or your departed four-footed friend. Get over it; it was just a pet, they say.

But experts across the country who deal with pet loss say there is no way to "get over it" unless you openly express your feelings, and determine to honor the memory of your pet. This might be done by a formal or informal memorial service, in which you and your friends or family give thanks for the pet's life and share memories. Or it might be done on the Internet, where many "rooms" are set up for people to discuss their grief and their love for pets who have died.

Grief experts also say there is almost always a feeling of guilt when you lose a pet: Did I do too little? Too much? Was he in pain? Should I have euthanized her sooner? Later? Should I have borrowed money to get better medical care?

Basically, it's a feeling that the pet may have died because of something you did or did not do. Sometimes, that feeling is accurate. And that, too, should be faced.

Experts suggest you handle these feelings by vowing to take better care of animals in the future. Check for medical problems sooner, try to get more prompt care and keep the gates locked so your pets can't get out. Those are active, positive ways to help assuage grief. No matter what your feelings, the most important thing you can do is connect with others who will understand and share your loss.

A sympathetic ear for grief-stricken

Here are some sources for help for grieving pet owners:

* The Delta Society: For a free list of books on pet loss, call 800-869-6898 and ask for "pet 400." An Internet Web site, www.deltasociety.org, offers a complete list of pet-loss telephone numbers and pet-grief counselors throughout the United States, along with information about services provided by each.

* Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement: Offers full information on grief counseling around the country at www.aplb.org.

* Pet Loss Grief Support Web Site & Ceremony: This Web site, www.petloss.com, offers group meetings, chat rooms, poetry and tribute pages for pets who have passed away.

* Rainbow Bridge: A Web site, www.rainbowbridge.com, that helps bereaved pet owners find comfort through chat rooms, personal tributes they write about their pets and other healing measures.

* "Preparing for the Loss of Your Pet," by Myrna Milani (Prima Publishing, 1998): Offers information about pet grief and all aspects of pet death.

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