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.
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.