Adjusting to the Loss of a Pet

Sandra B. Barker, Ph.D., LPC, NCC
Professor of Psychiatry
Director, Center for Human-Animal Interaction
School of Medicine
Virginia Commonwealth University
P. O. Box 980710
Richmond, VA 23298-0710
804-828-4570 phone
804-828-4614 fax
sbarker@vcu.edu

It is no surprise to Lhasa Apso owners to learn of research documenting the close emotional bond that rapidly develops between people and their pets. For most of us, our dogs represent so much: a loyal companion, confidant, and loving family member. Our dogs share our lives for years and support us in good times and bad. So when a pet dies, or is lost or stolen, many of us feel a deep sense of loss and our lives suddenly seem turned upside down. We find ourselves on an emotional roller coaster crying one minute, angry the next, and numb at other times. We grieve and grief is a normal reaction to a significant loss. And losing a beloved Lhasa is certainly a significant loss.

Unfortunately, many in our society don't understand the unique bond we share with our dogs. They make insensitive comments such as, "It was just a dog, get over it" or "You can always get another one". Such comments might be well intentioned, but clearly reflect a lack of understanding of the close and unique bond that exists between most owners and their dogs.

Grief is a normal, but individualized process. People grieve in their own way, based on their culture, beliefs, and past experiences with death and loss. For many, grief following the loss of a pet is very similar to grief following the loss of a family member or close friend. Owners often experience an initial period of shock to the news of the terminal illness or death of a pet, characterized by denial. In essence, our psychological defense systems kick in to protect us from the overwhelming news. Grief typically involves phases of feeling anger and guilt. This anger might be directed toward a veterinarian who was unable to save the pet, a careless river who may have run over the pet, or the pet for dying and leaving the owner. Often the owners are angry at themselves for not being able to prevent the death and experience a great deal of guilt. Sadness is another phase typically experienced. The owner feels a deep void, an emptiness without the pet. Over time, if we allow ourselves to grieve, we reach a phase of recovery when we begin to reinvest our emotions and energy toward ourselves and other loved ones. A time when we remember more of the happy, special times shared with the deceased pet.

Resources:

For those who don't have an understanding family member or friend to whom they can talk about their grief, and for others who need some additional support during this difficult time, there are a variety of pet loss resources available. A sample of these are listed below:

Pet Loss Support Hot-lines:

IAMS offers a toll-free Pet Loss Support Resource Center at (888) 332-7738, available Monday - Saturday from 8:00 AM to 8:00 PM. They will connect callers with a veterinary college operating a pet loss hot-line at the time of the call.

Pet Loss Counselors:

Other resources are also available. The Delta Society, a non-profit organization whose mission is to promote animals helping people improve their health, independence, and quality of life, maintains a Directory of Pet Loss Counselors in the US and a bibliography of pet loss resources. You can contact them at www.deltasociety.org or call them at (425) 226-7357.


Videotapes and Books:

A number of videotapes and books have been produced to assist grieving pet owners. A few of them are:

Losing Your Best Friend: Recovering from the Death of a Pet, 1997 videotape available from Gravity Video (540) 433-3071

Coping with Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet, 1994 book by Moira Anderson, Peregrine Press.

Maya's First Rose: Diary of a Very Special Love, 1992 book by Martin Scot Kosins, Villard Books

Surviving the Heartbreak of Choosing Death for Your Pet, 1997 book by Linda Peterson, Greentree Publishing

When Your Pet Dies: How to Cope with Your Feelings, 1985 book by Jamie Quackenbush and Denise Graveline, Simon & Schuster.