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Coping With Pet Loss

WebMD explains how to survive the painful grieving process after losing one of your closest companions.

Why We Grieve So Deeply continued...

Pomerance's support group gives pet owners the freedom to grieve. Its participants come from all walks of life. One retired doctor came to the group with photos of a Dalmatian he had lost 25 years earlier, she recalls. He also brought an urn containing the dog's ashes. "He curled up and cried like a baby," she says.

"The bonds with our beloved pets are in many ways stronger, purer, and far more intimate than with most others of our species," says Wallace Sife, a retired psychologist and author of The Loss of a Pet. "We feel loved and secure in sharing our secret souls with them. How often can you do this safely, even with someone who is very close?"

Am I Normal?

Sife heads the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement in Brooklyn, N.Y. The association's web site features a chat room staffed by moderators Sife has trained in grief counseling. "They come out with a lot of insight, and relief that there's nothing wrong with them," Sife says about chat room participants. "They realize they're not alone in their grief."

The Internet has also promoted shared rituals and even mythologies meant to console grieving pet owners. For the Monday Night Candle Ceremony -- which was born online but occurs offline -- pet owners light candles to memorialize their pets at a set time every Monday. And in a slightly more elaborate version of a story parents might use to console their children, many sites present the story of a "Rainbow Bridge," which deceased pets cross on their way to a worry-free pet heaven.

Mourning for a pet is normal, but not everyone experiences it in the same way, Pomerance says. Lonely people may have a particularly hard time. And Pomerance says grief can be cumulative: If you have suffered other traumas recently, losing a pet can be the last straw.

Deep mourning for a pet for more than a few weeks may indicate there are bigger issues affecting the mourner's psyche than just the loss of a pet, Sife says. When Sife's pet bereavement counselors come across such a case, they refer the person to a psychotherapist, who has a much wider range of training.

What to Do?

The process of coping with grief may begin before the pet dies.

Some people prefer to experience a pet's death at home with friends or relatives rather than in an animal hospital. Many veterinarians will agree to come to your home to perform euthanasia, Pomerance says.

Pomerance owns 16 dogs. When one dies, she holds a memorial service that includes friends who knew the animal. "It's somber but also a thing of joy and beauty and gratitude," she says. "We thank the animal for its companionship."

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