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Coping with Pet Loss: "Am I Crazy to Feel So Sad about This?"

by Marty Tousley

You've just learned that your family's beloved pet is terminally ill. The vet gives your cherished companion less than a month to live! As the sad reality of losing this important member of your family sets in, a million thoughts race through your head. 

Whether struggling with an animal companion's chronic illness, facing a decision about euthanasia, or mourning the loss of a cherished pet, most animal lovers are shocked and overwhelmed by the intensity of their reactions. They wonder if it is normal to feel the loss of a companion animal so deeply. Statements such as "I don't know what's wrong with me. I didn't feel this bad when my grandmother (acquaintance, friend, relative) died" are common. If this is a family's first encounter with death, parents may be uncertain how to guide their children through the experience of losing a beloved pet. 

As a bereavement counselor specializing in pet loss, over the last ten years I've counseled numerous grieving animal lovers, both individually and in groups. I find that the questions I'm asked most frequently are these:

  • Am I crazy to feel so sad (angry, guilty, depressed) about this?
  • How do I cope with my feelings when my pet is lost or missing?
  • Why didn't I feel this bad when one of my relatives or friends died?
  • How can I help my child(ren) deal with the loss of a pet?
  • How can I deal with the insensitive comments of others ("It was just an animal" or "You can always get another")?
  • Do other animals in the household grieve? How can I help them?
  • When there is no hope for recovery from illness or injury, should I choose euthanasia for my pet and, if so, how will I know when it's time?
  • Should I be present during my pet's euthanasia?
  • Do animals have souls, and do they go to Heaven? Will we be reunited someday?
  • What should I do with my pet's remains after death?
  • What can I do to memorialize my pet?
  • Will I feel better if I get another pet right away?
  • How long does grief last, and how long should I expect to feel this way?
  • Should I be getting help with my grief, and what support is available to me?
  • What should I do or say when my friend loses a pet?

Statistics indicate that companion animals are becoming more valued in our society than they were just 20 or 30 years ago. More people in the United States today have pets than children, and most animal lovers regard their pets as members of the family. How you will react to the death of your own loyal companions depends largely on the part they've played in your daily life, the significance of your relationships with them, and the strength of your attachments to them. 

Because the normal life span of most companion animals is so much shorter than your own, it is predictable that one day you will experience the loss of a beloved pet. Since the emotional bonds developed between people and animals can be very deep and strong, it's important to understand that the pain experienced when those bonds are broken is real. The more significant the bond, the greater the feeling of loss you can expect. The grief experienced is no different from that of losing a cherished friend or special member of the family. It is a natural, spontaneous response to the loss of a significant relationship.

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Marty Tousley, MS, RN, CS is a content provider for Self Healing Expressions. She is a hospice bereavement counselor helping people find their way through grief following the death of a loved one. As a volunteer with the Pet Grief Support Service in Phoenix, AZ, she also works with bereaved animal lovers, both individually and in groups, and consults with veterinary clinics to foster greater understanding of pet loss among staff members, thereby building better helping relationships with grieving clients.

A frequent contributor to healthcare journals, newsletters and magazines for the lay public, she has written several articles and book chapters in the professional nursing and medical literature, and has authored three books addressing various aspects of loss and grief. Her award-winning Internet Web site, www.GriefHealing.com offers information, comfort and support to anyone who is anticipating or mourning the loss of a loved one, whether human or animal.

Copyright 2003, 2004 Marty Tousley. All rights reserved. If you wish to publish this article, please email contact@selfhealingexpressions.com

 

 




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