'I Will Always Love You' - Coping With Loss

The death of a much-loved pet leaves us heartbroken and bereft. DR JUNE McNICHOLAS offers help over a difficult and painful time.

Look at any list of stressful life events and up there at the top are those associated with loss and bereavement. Usually, they are meant to refer to losses of human relationships but it is becoming increasingly recognised that loss of a pet can bring about a great deal of pain and anxiety. This has led to Pet Loss Counsellors, Pet Loss Helplines and, in many instances, a more sympathetic approach in veterinary clinics when dealing with owners whose pets have died or are euthansed.

However, many owners are still made to feel that they are somehow odd in needing to grieve for their pet. How many times have you heard comments like: 'It was only a dog' or 'You can get another one'? When the pet is a smaller creature, peoples' reaction can be even less understanding and this can only add to the hurt of losing a loved animal.

Let's have a look at the most common sorts of reactions to loss and how these may be affected by different circumstances. Most people will feel sadness when a pet dies, most will feel tearful or actually cry. These feelings may continue for several days, even weeks, and can cause quite a bit of disruption to normal life. Research has shown that a majority of pet owners report that their feelings cause disturbances to sleeping, eating and concentration. It is not unusual for people to want to take a day or two off work. Mood swings, bad dreams and short temper are common, as are feelings of not wanting to get on with anything. Some owners report that they think they see or hear (or even smell) their pet, only to realise afresh that the pet is dead. These are totally normal and common reactions, recognised by medics and vets alike.

Often these feelings are made worse if the animal was young, or met with an accident, or the death was in some way very unexpected or sudden. This can lead to feelings or guilt and thoughts of: 'Could I have done anything? Should I have noticed something? Was it my fault?' In other cases there may be anger at the vet for not knowing what to do or asking the owner to make the decision for euthanasia. Family problems, work stress, illness and other worries can all make pet loss even worse.

For some people their pet has been their only, or main, companion and has been a central part of their life. The feelings here can be compounded by loneliness and a sense that their whole life's routine has been destroyed.

For many children the death of a pet is their first experience of death and it can be hard to understand. Young children struggle with the finality of death and can often keep asking if the animal is 'still dead', unwittingly causing more pain for other family members. It is also quite common for children to believe it was something they did that caused the animal to die, even things quite unrelated to animal care, such as being naughty.

So how does one come to terms with the death of a pet? First of all accept the feelings that go with it. You are neither abnormal nor unusual. Do not get upset by people who fail to understand your feelings, their failure says more about their shortcomings than yours. Try not to berate yourself with feelings of guilt or anger but if you are concerned talk to your vet about your worries. Pet Loss Helplines can also be reassuring and informative.

Do not be tempted to tell a child that a dead pet has gone to live on a farm, run away or some other sanitised explanation for its absence. I've come across too many children who are hurt and resentful because they think their parents gave their pet away, or were not allowed to say goodbye. Also, make sure that young children understand the words you use. I've treated a good number of children with fear phobias where it's turned out that they are afraid to go to sleep because the dog 'was put to sleep and never came back'.

If you, or someone you know, really seem to be having difficulties coping or are becoming physically ill with the stress, professional help may be needed. Most GP's are very understanding. Don't forget that many doctors are animal lovers.

So, given all the pain that a pet death can cause, is it all worth it? In the short term many people say: 'No' because they feel they couldn't go through that again. But, after the most painful feelings pass, ask them if they would sooner they never had that pet and never had to go through it. The answer is almost universally that the pleasures outweighed the pain. That's the time to think of the future. What would your pet have wanted you to do? Chuck out his pen and equipment and erase him from your memory? Or transfer the love and affection you had for him to another needy animal?

I once asked a very famous psychiatrist, probably the world's leading researcher in death and loss, what he thought of the feelings people have when they lose a pet. He looked at me as if surprised that I even felt I needed to ask the question and this was his reply: 'People who can feel deeply for animals usually feel deeply about people too. They know how to love. But his comes at a price. Grief is the price of love, but love is the greatest commodity'.

Yorkie - 6Kb

Yorkie - a sandy hob rescued from awful circumstances. He was less than two years old when he died suddenly. He was such a sweet character and seemed to have only just found out that life could be enjoyable. All my feelings of loss were mixed with a sense of anger at the unfairness and the robbery of his short and mostly unhappy life just when it was getting better.

Harry - 8Kb

Harry - probably one of my most loved ferrets, yet one whose death I accepted most calmly. Harry was born in a caring home and had a long and carefree life, gradually slowing up as old age crept up on him. He had no illnesses until his last days when he was allowed to go with dignity. Yes, I felt his loss, but if I looked back at his life, it was exactly as I would have it for him. That brings great consolation.

(From Ferrets First Issue no. 10 February/March 2003)

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