The loss of a cherished companion can cause tremendous grief. For many people, the depth of sorrow is greater than with the passing of a person. Animals are a source of unconditional love and endless entertainment. Your pet will love you no matter what else is happening in your life. Unfortunately, as animals have a short lifespan, this is an issue that all pet owners will encounter at some point.
Coping with pet loss can be compounded by the fact that many people may not understand the depth of grief. A person's human support network may be much smaller for dealing with this type of loss. Also, there may not be a strong sense of closure because a funeral service is generally not held. People may not send flowers, cards, or food. Hurtful comments like "You can get another pet" only compound the feelings of loss, isolation, and loneliness. If the companion was a gift from a cherished loved one, has done a heroic act, or has helped a person through a difficult time, the loss can be greatly magnified.
According to Dr. Louise King-Bassett, a retired director of special education for the Lincoln Unified School District and a practicing private psychologist, "People underestimate the ramifications of pet loss, especially its effects on children and the elderly. Animals are friends and companions that a person spends time with routinely. Animals rely on us for their daily needs. Sudden pet loss is especially traumatic for children, and can result in acting out and other behavioral problems."
There are many activities that can help people through the grieving process. Holding a funeral or service at home can provide a sense of closure. Many animal lovers like to plant trees or make a charitable donation in honor of their buddy. Some find comfort in setting up a memorial with a photograph, collar, and/or lock of hair. Others may want to write a song, poem, or a letter to their beloved companion. People may enjoy volunteering at an animal rescue facility.
Talking to others is critical. People who are experiencing Pet loss go through the levels of grief that are experienced with any other loss: denial, bargaining, anger, sadness, and resolution. Being able to adequately express emotions and feelings helps tremendously in the transition through these stages. Websites, support groups, phone lines, books, and counseling can all be wonderful aids in the grieving process. Our community does have some local resources for helping with pet loss. Animal Friends Connection in Lodi (www.animalfriendsconnect.org
209-365-0535) holds a twice monthly support group. In cases of intense grief, consider individual counseling, especially for children. There are several local grief counselors who can help. Your veterinarian is also a great resource during this difficult time.
I dedicate this column to anyone who has experienced the loss of a pet; and to all of the wonderful animals I have known, who have now crossed the Rainbow Bridge. I especially want to recognize the recent passage of Wags Venzon (11/24/00-10/09/10), the Northern California Weimaraner Rescue booth ambassador. He was a very charismatic and loving dog, who has wrapped his tail around many of our hearts.
There are many wonderful websites:
Some Pet Loss Support Phone Lines:
Contra Costa Veterinary Medical Association
Pet Loss Support: (510) 752-7757
San Francisco SPCA Pet Loss Support Group: (415) 554-3000
ASPCA: (877) 474-3310
Cornell University: (607) 253-3932
Tufts University: (508) 839-7966
Dr. Louise King-Basset, L.E.P. (209) 365-7447
Dr. Arlene Phipps, LCSW, NBCCCH, PhD (209) 472-3627
Fran Costello MA, MFT (209) 266-2860
Sharman Saffier MA, MFT (209) 622-3962
Coping with Sorrow on the loss of your Pet--Moira Anderson Allen
Saying Good-Bye to a pet you love--Lorri Greene
The Rainbow Bridge--Niki Shanahan
Children and Pet Loss--Marty Tousley
When your pet dies--Alan Wolfelt