“He told of tales of 15 years how his dog and him, they traveled about. The dog up and died, he up and died, after 20 years he still grieves.” The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, 1971.
To someone whose pet is not a family member, this line from “Mr. BoJangles” might just be attributed to a kooky old hobo drunk who just couldn’t cope with the realities of life.
But to those of us to whom pets are our lives, it seems reasonable and proper behaviour.
Your pet’s doctor can help. While veterinarians are not professional counselors, we all have experience and training in talking to pet owners about the loss of a beloved pet. Veterinarians also know how and when to recommend professionals who deal in grief counseling for pet owners.
There are five recognized stages of grieving, and they apply to the loss of anything dear. The first is denial. It is our natural human reaction not to be able to face the fact that the illness or injury afflicting our best friend could be fatal. This is a step that often starts prior to the actual death of a pet, and is the ideal time for counseling to start, before the “counselee” becomes critical.
Bargaining is the next step. “God, if You will just let Sam get well, I’ll never let his vaccinations be late again.” Realization that bargaining isn’t working leads to the next phase, anger.
Anger may be directed at others, irrationally, or at ones’ self. A university doctor to whom I had referred a difficult orthopaedic case once gave me an update on a client whose dog had an untreatable condition, “She ripped me up one side and down the other,” he related. “I `gave’ her dog a bad disease, and she just couldn’t cope with it.” Guilt may lead one to take the blame, “If only I had gotten that limp treated sooner”, or “If I had stayed home today instead of going fishing”. This stage may be very destructive to the mourner and his surroundings. It is a time in which help from a friend or professional can make a huge difference. It is a time that needs to be dealt with, and left behind quickly.
Then comes genuine grief, described as a period of emptiness. At this stage the mourner needs maximum support, sympathy, understanding and accompaniment. The last thing the bereaved pet owner should hear is, “You can get another one anywhere”, or “It was just a dog, get over it.” To us, it’s not “just a dog” or “just a cat”. People who understand that concept are the people who need to help the person suffering the loss. It is crucial that you realize that the ties to your loved one must be broken for progress to occur. Breaking these ties is the most painful part of the process. It does not mean leaving the memory behind, just the realization that you must get on with your life, when the time is right for you. Sarah Morris says, in her book Grief, and How To Live With It, “…don’t make loneliness a way of life”.
Goodbye is the final stage that forces us to accept the truth. Done properly, it can be an important part of healing. The rituals are important. The beauty of a memorial service provides the comfort of a lasting memory. You may wish to be present during euthanasia; verbally saying goodbye just at the moment of passing is comforting to most pet owners. The most final rituals are important, too. Burial options may include home in the back yard under the pet’s favorite tree, pet cemetery burial, or individual cremation and saving or scattering the ashes.
May I suggest that you print this post and put it with your pets’ important papers for future reference? It is sad fact of pet ownership that we will all need it eventually. It is the nature of loving something with a life expectancy so much shorter than ours that we must be prepared to say farewell sooner than we would like.
This column is dedicated to the memory of Sally Randolph and the joy she brought to our lives, a joy that remains today.