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Coping With Pet Loss: First, Permission to Grieve

It’s devastating to lose a loved one. It’s even more devastating to feel ashamed about your grief, to feel that you need to apologize for mourning.

Unfortunately, when a pet dies, it’s all too common for owners to hide their pain, making it more difficult to get past it.

That’s the subject of this week’s Animal Cafe interview by Dr. Lorie Huston with Gael Ross, a licensed clinical social worker and the author of  A 30 Day Guide to Healing from the Loss of Your Pet.

Insensitivity, squared

Most people don’t mean to be insensitive. They just don’t know the right thing to say. Sometimes someone well-intended will say ask the age of a pet and, if she is older, say, “Well, she had a good, long life.” As Ross points out, “It doesn’t matter. You still grieve, whether the pet is two years or 20 years old.”

And those who haven’t experienced loving and being loved by a pet might suggest that “you can always get another…” or — far worse “It’s only a… [fill in the blank type of pet].” Regarding the loss of her dog, Madison, Ross had a friend say, flat out,”Get over it.”

Of course, some people are just jerks.

As Ross points out, “Losing a pet is one of the higher stresses in the world for anyone who is very attached to their animal.” The main purpose of her book is to give people permission to grieve over the loss.

The added burden of euthanization

Did I do it too soon? Did I wait too long? “When your pet dies naturally that’s difficult,” Ross says, “but when you have to make a decision to end your pet’s life, that’s really tough.” She adds, “It’s been two years since I put Madison down and I still have twinges about my decision.”

There’s no real human equivalent of the choice you have to make with a pet; taking a loved one off life support isn’t quite analogous because that person is being kept alive by machines. In a sense, euthanasia is the opposite of letting nature take its course — unless you consider feeding and providing pain medication unnatural — and that’s tough to do.

Having control over anyone’s life is painful, as Ross notes.

The Healing Process

People handle loss differently. Some want to get another pet right away; others don’t want their former pet to feel replaced.

Ross explains, “There’s no right or wrong. You’re never going to replace the pet you’ve lost,  but another pet will find a new place in your life and heart. No two dogs or cats are alike.”

I’m not going to list all seven stages of grief that Ross details. You’ll have to listen to the interview for that. But here are a few that anyone who has experienced loss is likely to recognize.

Recrimination. This is where you say, “If I had gotten him to the vet earlier, if I had noticed the symptoms soon…” In this initial stage of grief, you blame yourself for not having done all you could have done.

Reaching out. Once you’re able to start talking to others about your pain, you can begin to heal. To help with this stage, the book provides a a resource list of pet grief groups.

Readjusting. I would think that this must be one of the most difficult phases. If you’re used to sleeping with your dog, having him underfoot… all the little routines of your everyday life that remind you of your pet have to be relearned.

A word about the book’s title

I have to admit to being put off by the book’s title. Is there really a quick fix to grief, I grumped?

Ross anticipates and addresses that issue in the interview. “The book approaches things in a day-by-day fashion, leading people through these different stages. You’re not going to resolve your grief in 30 days. It’s just a guideline, a structure,” Ross says.

She also says that she had originally conceived the book as a 30 Day Guide to Enduring the Loss of Your Pet, but was advised that healing is a more hopeful term. She contends the word “enduring” is more accurate to what you’re likely to be feeling initially.

I get that if you’re trying to sell a book you need to be positive, to make compromises, and I appreciate the explanation.

A bonus: As a vet, Lorie Huston has first-hand experience with pet owner embarrassment about feeling grief. She adds an invaluable perspective to the interview, which you can listen to here.

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25 Comments

  1. Posted November 1, 2011 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Losing a pet is such a tough thing for those of us who have pets in our lives. Thanks for the wonderful review, Edie!

    • Edie Jarolim
      Posted November 1, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

      You’re welcome, Lorie. Thanks for a great interview on a difficult topic.

  2. Posted November 1, 2011 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    Sounds like a great book. Now we just need to get other people, like employers, to take the loss of a pet seriously. I tell Toby all the time – “I wish you could live forever.” He’s just going to be 4 years old and I’m so freaked out about anything happening to him.

    • Edie Jarolim
      Posted November 1, 2011 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

      Yes, that’s the sad part about our pets — that we almost always outlive them. It would be nice if we could accept their short lives as the gift it is — but that’s asking a lot… I don’t think we can expect people who don’t have pets to understand our grief, but that’s okay as long as there are others that do.

  3. Posted November 1, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing. I lost my rabbit in July and it took quite a while before I worked my way through the grief process. Of course, it didn’t help that I use her picture as my twitter avatar and that I have a Facebook page, Twitter account and blog named after her! Luckily I have lots of friends who were very supportive and understood what I was going through. For those who have lost a beloved companion, reach out to friends and family, both online and off, for support!

    • Edie Jarolim
      Posted November 1, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

      I know what you mean, Vicki. I sometimes wonder how I will be able to face my blog and my various social media accounts post-Frankie because his face is on everything. At the same time, as you point out, being a pet blogger provides a community of pet lovers who feel your pain. I remember when you lost Bunny Jean and I could only imagine how awful you must have been feeling, but I also saw the outpouring of love and support that I imagined provided some solace.

  4. Clare
    Posted November 1, 2011 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    I confess I haven’t listened to the interview, as I can only weep so many gallons of tears per day without melting like the Wicked Witch of the West, wondering whether I waited too long to let Archie go, and wondering, on the other hand, whether I could just have one more moment with Archie (please?).

    The only thing I can add to the comments you’ve received, Edie, is that there is absolutely no point in trying to brace yourself, in worrying prematurely about the frightening inevitable. For the last couple of years of Archie’s venerable life I kept telling myself, “Any time now,” “Okay, brace yourself, Clare, this could be it,” and what a fool I was! It did not make even the slightest dent in the grief I feel, it did not add even the slightest measure to the love I gave him. So relax, enjoy, stop obsessing. It doesn’t help to torture yourself….

    • Edie Jarolim
      Posted November 2, 2011 at 6:17 am | Permalink

      Good advice from someone very close to the situation. And maybe you’re proof that we can find sympathy in odd places: A winery tasting room, the office of a strange vet…

  5. Posted November 2, 2011 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    Great review, Edie. It’s so true that people don’t always seem to understand how devastating the loss of a pet can be. I’ve been fairly sheltered from this issue – my family is full of pet lovers and most of my friends have dogs or cats as well. We all kind of understand each other and how hard the various health issues and losses can be. I still cry about pets I lost over a decade ago, and that was always understood as a perfectly understandable emotion in my house growing up. (Although some of my non-pet owning friends seem to get it too, not all of them do. I’ve heard some pretty insensitive comments – in particular, about a friend commenting on another friend spending a lot of money on treatment for her dog. She really didn’t get it.)

    In any event, I think people have a hard time knowing what to do or say when faced with someone grieving any sort of loss. Having lost a parent in my 20s, I was amazed at some of the insensitive (although sometimes well-meaning) comments people would make (and some people have a hard time understanding how it never leaves you and how I can still get really upset about it 5 years later given the right trigger).

    There was an excellent series on grief in general on Slate a while ago, by Meghan O’Rourke: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/grieving/features/2009/the_long_goodbye/the_long_goodbye.html

    I think it’s a great read whether you’re grieving for a mother or for a pet. Her meditations on the grieving process really helped me think things through and put things into context when I was going through a particularly rough period.

    • Edie Jarolim
      Posted November 2, 2011 at 9:59 am | Permalink

      Thanks for your thoughtful response. I agree that loss in general makes people very uncomfortable, and they end up saying awkward things. Thanks too for the link to Meghan O’Rourke’s series; I’m going to read it right now.

  6. Posted November 2, 2011 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    This is a very important topic. Grief hurts like hell. When strong, enduring attachments are broken by death, whomever those attachments were with, we experience profound grief and pain. If I understand correctly, the neural pathways for emotional attachments overlap with those for physical pain. Personally, I’ve grieved the loss of my dogs more than I have the loss of any friend or family member thus far. In particular the physical pain of the grief for the loss of my dogs was far more intense. Why? I’m not entirely sure, but one thing comes to mind: My dogs were in my life nearly every hour of my life day in and day out. I was bonded with them in a way that carried huge emotional and psychological meaning. I felt the concreteness of their absence acutely. Thank you, Edie, for hosting Lori and Gael.

    • Edie Jarolim
      Posted November 2, 2011 at 10:02 am | Permalink

      You bring up a good point, Deborah — the amount of time we spend with our pets far surpasses what we spend with human loved ones. And it’s quality time, when we’re not stressed by feeling judged and criticized or otherwise having our buttons pushed by family members and friends.

  7. Posted November 2, 2011 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    It’s been years since we lost Blitzen, Rod and my first dog together. He died very unexpectedly from kidney failure just before his 4th birthday. At the time, few people in my world understood the kind of grief I was experiencing – of course, I was an accountant back then. I imagine that there would be a lot more support now given how my life has changed, but it would still be heartbreaking. I’ve wondered what would happen to my blog if we lost Ty or Buster – how would I go on writing without them? My personal and professional lives have become must more intertwined, which has a lot of advantages. It may also have some disadvantages.

    • Edie Jarolim
      Posted November 2, 2011 at 10:12 am | Permalink

      I will never have the experience of losing a dog without having a community of dog lovers and I’m thinking that’s a good thing, but I also think it’s hugely painful, no matter what. My father died suddenly of a heart attack; my mother had a slow year to say goodbye when she had cancer. As Clare said, there’s no real way to prepare for the pain of losing a loved one, no matter how much you think you’re ready.

  8. Posted November 2, 2011 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    I don’t like to think about pet mortality. I had a beta fish that died years ago and I was devastated for a long time. Can’t imagine what it will be like with the boys. I’m hoping not to need a book like this for a very long time (my guys are still pretty young), but it’s nice to know it’s there when the time comes.

  9. Posted November 2, 2011 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    I hate to say this aloud but I have grieved more and cried more over my two greyhounds than I did for my parents. It’s not that I didn’t love my parents any less but they were old and sick and living in a nursing home (existing in a nursing home) and I felt death was a blessing as an escape out of their misery. Damn, I don’t want to go through that for me either.

    But with my dogs, I don’t believe in suffering and wanted them to leave planet earth with some dignity, something neither of parents were privy to.

    People who don’t have pets, don’t understand our grieving. Grieving over your pet is never having to say you’re sorry when you burst into tears after seeing their sweet faces on your screen saver, even 4 years later.

    The best thing is to surround yourself with support and in my case, rescue another dog which to me is part of the healing process. Otherwise I would never get out of bed in the morning.

  10. Posted November 3, 2011 at 1:50 am | Permalink

    What worries me more than losing Frankie and/or Beryl is me dying before they do. I know Beryl would eventually be OK because she would go back into the Greyhounds As Pets programme where I got her from. She would hate it though, being back in the kennels until a suitable home was found for her. Frankie is another matter altogether. I don’t have any family or friends who could take him in. I haven’t worked out the best way to provide for him if I’m not around!

  11. Posted November 3, 2011 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

    Great post Edie. I admit that I am one of those who really has a hard time dealing with the “having control over anyone’s life.” I have always struggled with knowing when it’s the right time and then anguishing over whether I made the right decision after it’s over. I think Deborah described my feelings exactly. Our dogs are there with us day in and day out. Losing them is like losing a piece of yourself.
    I remember a friend saying to me after Aspen died that the hardest part was seeing them everywhere they used to be. I think that is perhaps the most accurate description of what it feels like when you lose a pet. You see them everywhere they used to be and you remember how much they were a part of your routine and then it hits you that they are no longer there.
    Just from your summary, it sounds like Gael gets it. I’ll have to check out her book. Thanks.

  12. Posted November 4, 2011 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    I attended a talk last week by a vet specializing in hospice and palliative care. One of her most compelling points was that providing for the end of our pet’s lives is yet another way we strengthen the bond we’ve been building over time. She talked about how our end of life decisions should be about figuring out what will strengthen that bond.

    I’m still processing her words. Just like I’m still processing all the complex feelings about the dogs I’ve lost.

    • Edie Jarolim
      Posted November 4, 2011 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

      I’ll look forward to your (ever thoughtful) post when you finish processing. It’s a really tough subject.

  13. Posted November 5, 2011 at 5:07 am | Permalink

    Woof! Woof! it is very hard to loose a pet (or anyone). I know mom will have a hard time when the time comes …. Golden Thanks for this post. Happy BLOG HOP Weekend. Lots of Golden Woofs, Sugar

  14. Posted November 5, 2011 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    Terrific post. Mom says it’s so hard to lose a pet, just like a member of the family. We just lost our Mo last week. He was 19 and a very dapper kitty. Even I loved him, and that’s saying a lot, barooo. It leaves a hole in our hearts, but the memories help to heal us.

    • Edie Jarolim
      Posted November 5, 2011 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

      I’m so sorry for your loss. What a lovely thing to say about the healing memories.

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