Grieving for Pets Comes of Age — but Slowly
When my sister’s dog passed just over a dozen years ago, she grieved openly and fiercely. The extent of her grief was, in part, the result of the especially grim circumstances. Her boy’s death had been particularly difficult.
She’d adopted him as a pup, the only survivor from a litter of frozen babies dumped by a wintry roadside in upstate New York. He’d been normal for only a few months, after which he developed a seizure disorder the veterinary neurologists at Cornell had presumed to be epilepsy.
Just two years later, however, it became clear that Hudson’s disorder was worsening. Independent of his seizures, he appeared to act in ways that, to my sister, seemed schizophrenic — he’d be happy and healthy one moment, dark and aggressive the next.
Ultimately, it was not a condition that could be controlled. Hudson’s quality of life — and that of his family — was rapidly deteriorating. Euthanasia was elected.
It happened at home, under the best possible circumstances. Lakeside, in his backyard, under his favorite tree, he was laid to rest.
A Hard Death to Rationalize
It was a terrible sort of grief that ensued. My sister could not come to grips with how strangely and sadly Hudson not only came into the world, but also how he had to die.
Others in our family had passed on by that point in her life, but theirs had been timely, understandable deaths. She’d had no experience with the loss of a young, otherwise healthy friend and family member who couldn’t be significantly helped by modern medicine. The fact that she’d fought so hard for his survival — years of visits to faraway specialists, among numerous other personal sacrifices made on his behalf — made it all the worse to bear.
To me, her reaction was understandable. It made sense that someone might suffer anguish — even to the point of debilitating misery — over the death of so close a companion. Yet most of our family and plenty of friends weren’t necessarily so understanding. To them, it seemed strange that anyone should endure such depression for so long over the death of a dog.
Animal-loving and well-intentioned though they were, most observers deemed the death of a pet a thing one should move past quickly. “Get a puppy,” they’d say. “Immerse yourself in your work.” “Take a trip.” Or even, “Have a baby!”
Though they meant well, it wasn’t what she needed. People who grieve for their pets need support, understanding and acceptance of their pain as a normal, natural reaction to a spectacularly sorrowful experience.
Sadly, however, her experience is similar to that of many who grieve over the death of their pets. They receive little affirmation of their feelings, only the slightest consideration of their pet’s significance and virtually no professional support for their very real clinical symptoms of grief.
Families are unsure how to handle these grievers, employers are unlikely to offer any sympathy, and even doctors may overlook the obvious and assume more organic forms of clinical depression are in play.
Grief Counselors for Pet Loss
Are there grief counselors who deal with pet loss? To be sure, there are —although, in my opinion, the notion of severe grief after a pet’s death hasn’t yet become mainstream enough, plenty of grief counseling centers and independent grief counselors offer services in that area. Such professionals provide safe havens where a pet owner’s suffering can be acknowledged and openly discussed in ways the much of the world might find strange or even offensive. (“Pets are not people, after all!”)
Today, pet loss support groups can be found in most communities, and pet loss hotlines are available through the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), Tufts University and the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, to name just a few.
It’s true: Though we’ve come a long way in loving our pets and doing everything we can for them when they get sick, how we handle their passing still leaves an awful lot to be desired.
My sister? She did eventually get there, of course. After months of suffering, her grief attenuated enough that she could push through it long enough to take on a new puppy. Still, she has never wholly recovered. (Do any of us?) More than 12 years later, my sister can still cry at the mere mention of Hudsie. But, thankfully, it gets a little better every year.
Maybe one day, grief like hers will receive the compassion it deserves. After all, those who grieve over the loss of a pet don’t deserve to be emotionally shortchanged any more than good dogs deserve to die.