Coping With Pet Loss

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

From the WebMD Archives

Anyone who ever told a grieving pet owner, "Get over it -- it's just a dog," never met Keeper.

Fuzzy Davis met Keeper when he was just a stray puppy hanging around the dock where Davis was a charter fishing boat captain. The shaggy-haired husky-golden retriever mix spent every night sleeping under the ramp that went down to the dock at Calibogue Sound in Hilton Head, S.C. One night during a storm, Davis ventured out to check up on his boat. The puppy followed him down to the dock, soaking wet. That's when Davis knew he was, well, a keeper.

Keeper accompanied Davis on fishing trips for the next 13 years -- 3,000 trips by Davis' count. Friends joked that Keeper must have been a fisherman in his past life. He barked excitedly whenever Davis' customers reeled in a fish. If they stood for a picture with their catch, Keeper would sneak into the shot.

Dealing With Death

When Keeper got cancer, Davis traveled five hours to Atlanta, so he could get chemotherapy treatments. When he finally died a year later, an artist friend tied saltwater fishing flies using his hair; Davis gave them to his friends. Finally, Davis cremated Keeper and scattered his ashes in a favorite fishing spot.

"Now they call it Keeper's Cove," Davis tells WebMD. "I was just there last night to fish."

Maybe your favorite doggie or kitty didn't get written up in the local paper, or have a memorial attended by a fleet of fishing boats. Maybe you're even a little ashamed to admit to friends or family how sad you were to see Spot go.

Fortunately, pet grief has emerged from the shadows. There's now a bevy of books, support groups, hotlines, and online forums where you'll find others who will share your pain, or at least listen without being dismissive.

Why We Grieve So Deeply

When Dallas-based author Diane Pomerance lost her favorite dog seven years ago, she found herself grieving more deeply for the dog than she had for her father. "I was crying all the time," Pomerance tells WebMD. "I had a very short fuse. I couldn't concentrate or focus on work. Family and friends kept telling me, 'It's only a dog. You can get another one.'"

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Instead, Pomerance sought to understand her grief. She got certified as a grief recovery specialist by the Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based Grief Recovery Institute. She started a support group for grieving pet owners at the SPCA of Texas in Dallas, and wrote a book on losing a pet.

There are many reasons why someone may grieve very deeply for the loss of a pet.

"These animals offer us unconditional love," Pomerance says. "They don't betray us. They don't have an agenda. They are always forgiving and happy to see us. And they're with us 24/7. When we're home we can let down our guard with them."

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.

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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."

The question of how to grieve is intensely personal, but in general, it's important to feel free to express your emotions and memories.

For example, Sife suggests keeping a log of your thoughts and feelings. Online chat rooms and message boards, and offline support groups and hotlines linked to humane societies, are also sources of support.

For those experiencing severe grief, Sife suggests writing a letter to yourself, taking on your pet's persona. "Observe how you are reacting to the loss, and ask yourself if your pet would want you to continue this way. We all know pets would want the best for us, because that's what love is about."

Children and Pet Death

For children, the loss of a pet may be their first exposure to death. It may be much more affecting than the loss of an aunt or grandparent whom they rarely see, Pomerance says. A pet's loss is a key moment for teaching children about the value of life. So give the child space to mourn, says Pomerance, who haswritten a book to help children cope with the loss of a pet.

Pomerance suggests helping the child make a scrapbook or journal about the animal. If the child seems puzzled by the concept of death, she says parents can compare the cycle of life and death to the natural cycle of the seasons.

Above all, never try to dismiss the child's loss, or to foist another animal on the child too soon. "The main thing is to be empathetic and supportive," Pomerance says.

WebMD Pet Health Feature Reviewed by Audrey Cook, BVM&S on March 2, 2011

Sources

Published July 10, 2006.

 

SOURCES: Wallace Sife, PhD, Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement. Diane Pomerance, PhD, author, Finding Peace After the Loss of a Loved Animal Companion, Polaire Publications, 2006. Fuzzy Davis, author, Doggone It: Man's Best Friend Can Fish. Collins Doughtie, The Island Packet, May 15, 2005.

© 2006 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

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