Pet Bereavement

By Alan Brandis, Ph.D.

This is just a short note to let you know that, if you find yourself depressed or in grief over the loss of a pet, you are not nuts (despite what some people might tell you). Although most of my experience in the last 10 years is with dogs, the following applies to other pets as well (we had a cat, Phoenix, who lived to be 23!).

Just to let you know, we have three big dogs: Isis, Venus and George Harrison. Harrison is the most expensive free dog I have personally heard of, since when we found him he had five broken or infected teeth, his corneas were being eroded by eyelid hair and his lower left canine was broken. With extractions, neutering, ID chipping, eyelid reduction surgery (to save his corneas) and a root canal, it was the best $2000 I ever spent!

Pets represent some of the best parts of humanity. They are vulnerable and dependent in some ways, but they can also defend themselves if they need to. They are loyal as the day is long, give of themselves selflessly, love us when we fear we are unlovable, and wait patiently for us to come home, when we become their whole world. They are boundlessly happy just to take a walk with us or be stroked. They keep our blood pressure down and our sense of humor up.

From The Associated Press, 2006:

In a funny and poignant memoir, "Marley & Me: Life and Love With the World's Worst Dog," first-time author John Grogan remembers his late pooch as an irrepressible force of nature and as a faithful companion who taught his human masters a thing or two about loyalty and unconditional love.

Grogan had always gotten big laughs at dinner parties when he told Marley stories and occasionally wrote about the dog's exploits in newspaper columns, and it dawned on him that there might be enough material for a book. He had planned to assemble a collection of essays on life with Marley, but that changed when he wrote a column about the dog's death. Some 800 readers called and e-mailed, the biggest response Grogan had ever gotten from one of his columns.

He knew he had touched a nerve.

"That's when I realized that there's a bigger story here ... (about) how families bring these animals into their homes, and try to shape the animals to their will. But at the same time, the animals are shaping us a little bit and helping turn us into the people we become," says Grogan, whose house, a two-story Colonial on a wooded hillside, is clean and tidy but displays the telltale signs of dog ownership: toys, treats and shed hair.

[I heartily recommend this book, but buy a box of tissue for the end. - ADB]

When we lose a pet, either through an accident, their running away or simply from old age, it can create all of the anguish and pain that the loss of any relationship can cause. Difficulty sleeping, anxiety and fear, guilt reactions, and crying spells can all occur after the loss of a pet, not to mention the feeling of emptiness in your life, especially at times when you used to have a regular activity together. For a week or two this is normal, but if it does not fade after that you may need some help to get past your loss and move on with life.

Creating a memorial of your great times together (a scrapbook, etc.) can help. Doing something for other animals in your pet's memory can help. Having a "service" to remember and talk about what a great pet he or she was, can help. When we had to put Phoenix to sleep (she could no longer hold her head up), I found it helpful to dig a place for her burial. It took me several hours and burned up a lot of energy. Also, it was a last thing I could do for her, to take proper care of my feline friend. We wrapped her in her favorite blanket, that smelled like me, in a wooden box I made. I kept thinking about how the American pioneers must have felt, burying a loved one who had died because they were the only ones who could and would.

If you find yourself stuck in grief, call us and schedule an appointment. Your grief will be respected and understood, and we'll help you get past it. After all, that's what your friend would want for you.