Coping with Pet Bereavement
All dogs die, whether from old age, accident, illness or euthanasia. Dogs have a shorter lifespan than humans, although most owners would like to think their dog is immortal, especially if he is hale and hearty in his late teens or beyond.
The death of a well-loved pet is on a par with the death of a human family member, despite what thoughtless people may say. Grief and anger are natural reactions to the death of an animal companion. Most people need time to come to terms with the loss of a close animal friend. Many seek consolation in remembering the joy that their dog brought them. Others find it harder to come to terms with pet bereavement especially if the dog had been rescued, nursed through illness or was their main companion.
No one who has had to make the decision to euthanize a pet will deny that there are feelings of loss and perhaps guilt. However, owners must take some comfort in having been able to be merciful to their loved pets. In a sense the owner has taken on the pain of a loving act of mercy in exchange for the suffering their dog has been spared from.
It sometimes helps to share your feelings, but people who have never lost a pet themselves may seem unsympathetic. Many GPs and religious ministers are now sympathetic to those who have lost an animal family member and can offer bereavement counseling. Suppressing feelings of grief is unhealthy and the Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS) runs a Pet Befriender Referral Helpline which can put you in touch with a Pet Befriender in your own area. Pet Befrienders understand just what you are going through, having experienced it themselves, and know that it helps to talk about your feelings after the death of a pet.
How soon should I get another dog?
If your dog was put to sleep as the result of an infectious illness, then your vet may advise you to let a period of time elapse before getting another dog. This is to reduce the risk of infection remaining in your home.
Apart from this, it is a personal decision. Some people cannot live without K-9 companionship and get another dog almost immediately, sometimes within hours. Others would consider this to be indecent haste. Many owners need a period of time to come to terms with the loss of a pet; how long this takes varies from person to person. Some feel that getting another dog too quickly would be disrespectful to their former companion. A few owners take on another dog before their pet goes into terminal decline; this is only possible if the dog is sociable and there is no risk of infection
Important: Do not get a new dog if you are emotionally upset. Your new dog will not know you just lost a friend, will not know you are mourning; it will simply read your emotions as weakness, and it will instinctually feel the need to be YOUR pack leader. If you do not feel mentally strong, do not bring another dog into the house until you do.
Remember that the new dog will not replace the one you have lost. He will commemorate your previous dog, but will have a personality all his own. If you try to replace your dog with an exact duplicate, you are likely to be disappointed as all dogs are individuals.
GRIEVING THE LOSS OF A PET
By Margaret Muns, DVM
Margaret Muns, DVM is the staff veterinarian on the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary.
Grief is the normal response to any important loss in life. It occurs regardless of whether death followed a prolonged illness, or a sudden accident. Grieving people experience both physical and emotional traumas as they try to adapt to the upheaval in their lives brought about by the loss.
Psychologists have long recognized that the grief suffered by pet owners after their pet dies is the same as that experienced after the death of a person. The death of a pet means the loss of a non-judgmental love source. There is no longer anything for the pet owner to nurture and care for. Furthermore, the owner looses his or her contact with "the natural world." These feelings can be particularly intense for the elderly, single people and childless couples,( for whom the pet also is a child substitute).
THE STAGES OF GRIEF
In truth, the process of grief is not a cut and dried process that can be subdivided into strict categories. Rather, the grief process is a continuum, with each person experiencing it in a different way. Dividing the grief process in to "stages" helps the grief stricken person to understand that their experiences and emotions are normal. Some people will quickly progress through all the phases, while others appear to get "stuck" in a particular phase. Briefly, the stages of grief are as follows:
1. SHOCK AND DENIAL
The reality of death has not yet been accepted by the bereaved. He or she feels stunned and bewildered-as if everything is "unreal."
The grief stricken person often lashes out at family, friends, themselves, God, the Veterinarian or the world in general. Bereaved people will also experience feelings of guilt or fear during this stage.
In this stage, the bereaved asks for a deal or reward from either God, the Veterinarian or the Clergy. Comments like "I'll go to Church every day, if only my pet will come back to me" are common.
Depression occurs as a reaction to the changed way of life created by the loss. The bereaved person feels intensely sad, hopeless, drained and helpless. The pet is missed and thought about constantly.
Acceptance comes when the changes brought upon the person by the loss are stabilized into a new lifestyle. The depth and intensity of the mourning process depends on many factors. The age of the owner, circumstances surrounding the death, relationship of the animal to the owner and to other family members, are all significant. Recently experiencing the death of a significant person in the owner's life can also affect how the pet's death is handled. Usually, children recover more quickly, while the elderly take the longest. Sometimes, the death of a pet will finally enable the bereaved to mourn the loss of a person, whose death had not yet been accepted.
PET LOSS AND CHILDREN
Many people do not realize how traumatic and confusing death can be on a child. Although children tend to grieve for shorter periods of time, their grief is no less intense than that experienced by adults. Children also tend to come back to the subject repeatedly; so extreme patience is required when dealing with the grieving child. Some helpful tips for helping the grieving child include:
1. Giving the child permission to work through their grief. Tell their teacher about the pet's death. Encourage the child to talk freely about the pet. Give the child plenty of hugs and reassurance, and discuss death, dying and grief honestly.
2. NEVER say things like "God took your pet," or the pet was "put to sleep." The child may learn to fear that God will take them, their parents or their siblings, or the child may become afraid of going to sleep.
3. Include the child in everything that is going on.
4. Explain the permanency of death.
DO PETS GRIEVE?
What many people find hard to believe is that animals can form very firm attachments with each other. Even pets that outwardly seem to barely get along will exhibit intense stress reactions when separated. In fact, grieving pets can show many symptoms identical to those experienced by the bereaved pet owner.
The surviving pet(s) may become restless, anxious and depressed. There may also be much sighing, along with sleep and eating disturbances. Often, grieving pets will search for their dead companions and crave more attention from their owners.
How can an owner help the grieving pet?
By following the following recommendations:
1. Keep the surviving pet(s) routines as normal as possible.
2. Try not to unintentionally reinforce the behavior changes.
3. If the pet's appetite is picky, don't keep changing the food... all that does is create a more finicky pet.
4. Don't overdo the attention given to the pet(s) as it can lead to separation anxiety.
5. Allow the surviving animals to work out the new dominance hierarchy themselves. There may be scuffles and fights as the animals work out the new pecking order (dogs mostly).
6. Don't get a new pet to help the grieving pet(s) unless the owner is ready. This will backfire unless the owner is emotionally ready for a new pet, and people still grieving won't have the energy for it.
Should the owner let the surviving animals see and smell their dead companion? There is no evidence that doing so will help the surviving pet(s), but some people claim that it does. Usually, all it accomplishes is to make the owner feel better. Therefore, if the owner wants to have the surviving pets "say good-bye," then it should be allowed.
Given time, healing will occur for the bereaved owner. However, there are several things that the grief-stricken owner can do to help speed up the healing process:
1. Give yourself permission to grieve. Only YOU know what your pet meant to you.
2. Memorialize your pet. This can make the loss seem more real, helps with closure, and allows you to express feelings, pay tribute and reflect.
3. Get lots of rest, good nutrition and exercise.
4. Surround yourself with people who understand your loss. Let others care for you, and take advantage of support groups for bereaved pet owners.
5. Learn all you can about the grief process. This helps owners realize that what they are experiencing is normal.
6. Accept the feelings that come with grief. Talk, write, sing, or draw.
7. Indulge yourself in small pleasures.
8. Be patient with yourself. DON'T let society dictate how long mourning should last.
9. Give yourself permission to backslide. It WILL end and your life WILL be normal again. Grief is like waves in the ocean: at first the waves come in fast and hard, but as time goes on, the waves become less intense and further apart. Don't be surprised if holidays, smells, sounds, or words trigger a relapse.
10. Don't be afraid to get help from pet loss support groups and/or grief counselors.
Grief is probably the most confusing, frustrating and emotional thing that a person can experience.
It is even more so for pet owners. Society in general does not give bereaved pet owners "permission" to grieve openly. Consequently, pet owners often feel isolated and alone. Luckily, more and more resources are becoming available to help the bereaved pet owner realize that they are NOT alone and that what they are feeling is entirely normal.
For those who have lost a pet...
I stood by your bed last night... I came to have a peep.
I could see that you'd been crying, And you found it hard to sleep
I whined to you softly as you brushed away a tear,
"It's me. I haven't left you. I'm well, I'm fine, I'm here."
I was close to you at breakfast... I watched you pour your tea.
You were thinking of the many times Your hands reached down to me.
I was with you at my grave today... You tend to it with such care.
I want to reassure you That I'm not lying there.
I walked you towards the house As you fumbled for the key.
I gently put my paw on you... I smiled and said, "its me."
You looked so very tired As you sank into a chair.
I tried so hard to let you know That I was sitting there.
It's wonderful for me to be So near you everyday,
To say to you with certainty, "I never went away."
You sat there very quietly, Then smiled... I think you knew
That in the stillness of the evening I was very close to you.
And when the time is right for you To cross the brief divide,
I'll rush across to meet you And we'll stand there side by side.
I have so many things to show you! There's so much for you to see.
Be patient, live your journey out, Then come home to be with me.
"Just this side of Heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge. When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all our special friends so they can run and play together. There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable.
All the animals that had been ill or old are restored to health and vigour; those that were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days gone by. The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing: they each miss someone very special to them who had to be left behind. They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent; his eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster.
You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling to each other in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.
Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together...."
The Animals' Eden(Anonymous)
The Animal's Eden is a huge, beautiful walled garden where all pets go until such time as their human companions can join them. Only pet animals go to this walled garden and there are other special places for all the other animals, and especially beautiful places for animals that have suffered while on Earth and whose souls need peace and healing before they can move on. The garden is full of lawns and hedges, flower borders and shrubberies, wildflower meadows and patios of red brick. All of this is surrounded by a wall, just like a Middle Ages English garden, but much, much larger. The wall is not to keep the animals in and the garden is so huge that none of them feel as though they are in any way enclosed. And in any case there is a special gate, but I will come to that later.
In the Animal's Eden all the pets that have passed over and are waiting for their special human are free to do what they want, and because it is a heavenly place, none of them want to do anything that harms their animal friends. The horses and ponies graze and gallop in the meadows. The dogs romp on the lawns and sniff in the shrubberies. The cats lounge on the patios, basking in the sunshine, or take their ease in the dappled shade of trees. Birds are no longer caged, but fly free in the trees, eating the plentiful fruit and seeds. None of them actually feel hungry, but are provided with heavenly food if they wish so that they can eat without harming the others waiting alongside them. The garden is full of every kind of animal that has ever been a pet and which has someone special it wishes to wait for.
There is a special arch in the garden wall, the sort of brick arch which might have held a wrought iron gate in earthly gardens. Sometimes one or more of the animals gets a funny feeling, a bit like butterflies in the tummy. Those animals stop their playing or basking and make their way to the arched gate. Something special is about to happen. When they reach the gate they can see that their special human is walking towards the gate. Then, because the Animals' Eden is a place for animals only, those animals can walk through the arch to join their human friend(s) and walk together in the sunshine on the next stage of their souls' journey. For although the garden is a beautiful and happy place, there is nothing more joyful than a reunion between dear friends who have been apart too long.