CHICOPEE, Mass (Mass Appeal) Losing a pet is one of the most troubling times for families. Ken Dolan-Del Vecchio is an author and Family Therapist and he gave us tips to make the loss easier to bare.
Pet Loss Tips
- Don’t be surprised if losing your pet hurts more than when you lost a human family member. It is absolutely normal for some people who lose their animal companion to find this loss hurts more than when they lost a human loved one. If you’re one of those people, it doesn’t mean you loved your parent, sibling, or friend any less. Instead, it means you had an exceptionally close bond with your animal companion, probably because they lived in your house with you all of their lives, you touched them with your hands every day, and you may have cared for them in a very intimate way—bathing them, clipping their nails, preparing their food, and administering medication. This kind of closeness often builds an exceptionally deep connection.
- While grieving, it’s normal to feel numb, disbelieving, furious, guilty, sad, hopeless, confused, and calm–all within just a few minutes. You may also have difficulties with short-term memory, sleeping, and eating.
- Expect your grief to progress unevenly. It’s normal to feel one day (or one minute) like you’re calm and doing better, and then all of a sudden, the next minute, or day, you fall back into your grief. Over time you’ll feel better, but the progression generally feels unsteady.
- People grieve differently. There’s no one way, nor right way to do it. Some people show a lot of feelings to a lot of people, others grieve more quietly. The length of time grief persists varies from one individual to the next. There are no correct and incorrect ways to get through this.
- Deciding to end your pet’s suffering through euthanasia can be a gift of love when the irreversible pain of illness or infirmity outweighs the pleasures of living. It helps to make the decision with input from others who you love and trust.
- Even the most loving pet guardians often feel guilty. No matter how much love and care you gave, how closely you paid attention to symptoms, or how carefully you made end-of-life decisions, in hindsight you may torment yourself with the suspicion that you failed to love, care, plan, and do enough. Take heart. Over time, talking these concerns through with others and thinking them through on your own will eventually help you see that you did all that you could.
- Take good care of yourself: eat well, rest, exercise, and get support from others. Share what you’re going through with people who love and respect you, those who understand how much you loved your friend. Try to get enough sleep. If sleep proves difficult, soothe yourself with soft music, meditation, or stretching before retiring. Try to rest even if sleep eludes you. Do your best to eat well and drink lots of water. Stick with your regular program of exercise and daily activity. Sometimes working helps because it keeps you structured, provides constructive distraction, and places you close to loving friends. Sometimes it’s better to take a bit of time off.
- It can’t hurt to see a therapist, but it’s often not necessary. Many people worry that their grief feels so extreme that they need professional help. While it can never hurt to consult a therapist, if you are able to keep up your daily responsibilities: bathing, preparing food, taking care of dependents, working or performing the other activities that give your day structure, then you don’t need to see a therapist. If, however, you feel persistently sad, hopeless, or unable to experience even a few moments of joy for a span of two weeks or more, then you owe it to yourself to visit a therapist for evaluation of clinical depression.
- Inform and include children in ways that fit their age. Children younger than five typically cannot grasp the permanence of death. It can help to explain that the pet’s body stopped working and they will not wake up, eat, or move anymore. You may need to repeat this explanation a number of times. By age eight or nine most children understand death in a more adult fashion. Children of all ages, including teenagers, tend to assume that when unwelcome things happen in their family, somehow they may have had something to do with it. It can help to reassure them that this is not so by telling them that their friend died because she was old or sick or suffered an injury, and nothing they did contributed to this happening. Include children in whatever ritual the family decides upon: reading good-bye letters, letting go of balloons, or whatever other way you choose to mark your friend’s passing.
- Sometimes other pets in the household appear to be grieving as well. Give them extra love and attention.
- If people make insensitive comments like “Can’t you just get another dog?” or “It was only a cat!” here are some options for responding:
- “She was one of my very best friends—if your best friend died and I said ‘Can’t you just get another friend?’ how would you feel?”
- “I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and imagine that you’re trying to help, but I loved my cat, he was a member of my family, and what you said totally dismissed the way I feel about losing him.”
- Sometimes it’s best to say nothing at all and end the conversation.
- The right time to adopt another pet varies from person to person, but it can never hurt to wait longer if you’re uncertain. When you choose to bring a new animal companion home, however, don’t expect them to replace your lost friend or take away your grief.
Pet Loss Resources
- The Pet Loss Companion: Healing Advice from Family Therapists Who Lead Pet Loss Groups. by Ken Dolan-Del Vecchio and Nancy Saxton-Lopez. CreateSpace. 2013.
- Coping with Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet. by Moira Anderson Allen. Dog Ear Publishing. 2007.
- Goodbye Friend: Healing Wisdom for Anyone Who Has Ever Lost a Pet. by Gary Kowalski. New World Library. 2012.
- I’ll Always Love You (a book for parents to share with their children). By Hans Wilhelm. Dragonfly Books. 1988.
- aplb.org (Association of Pet Loss Bereavement)