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It's Crazy Not to Grieve: Coping With Pet Loss

Jul 15, 2008
I don't think of myself as a crazy person when it comes to my dogs. I don't push them around in a little stroller and I don't dress them in little outfits (though before we had a child, I did put birthday hats on them for a picture.) Still, when we had to put our 12-1/2 year old Airedale Terrier down, I did feel compelled to mark his passing with a little ceremony for our family.

We invited staff from our vet's office, friends and neighbors who would understand. We laid out pictures of Max, we shared a story I had written in his honor and we went outside and released balloons. As a family and as a community, we laughed, cried and celebrated. For us, it provided a sense of peace and acknowledgement of the loss of a relationship that had been a constant and significant part of our lives. To my mind, that's not crazy. However, not everyone in our society respects the loss of a pet as a serious event as I was soon to be reminded when I ran into another neighbor the next day.

I had tried to keep our ceremony low-key, but she had found out. "I don't get it. He was just a dog." At that moment, I could have felt angry, hurt or crazy. Instead I was filled with a deep sense of compassion that she would never know the unconditional love, acceptance, fun and joy of having an animal be a part of her life. Before you react angrily in a situation like this ask yourself, "Is it crazy to feel sad about losing a relationship that brought you comfort and happiness or is it crazy for a person to try to minimize your loss because they don't understand it?" If you accept your feelings as normal, you will make huge strides toward healing.

In my life, I have experienced both animal and human death -the first most dramatic being the sudden death of my father from a heart attack when I was only 9. Later I mourned the passing of grandparents, friends and several family pets. In my experience, the difference between human and animal death is just a matter of degrees. There is more chaos for a longer period of time after you lose a person, but the deep sorrow and stages of grief -- the denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance -- are very much the same. Am I saying there's no difference between losing a person and losing a dog? Of course not. But when you are surprised by the powerful feelings you experience after a pet loss, you may try to hold their feelings in, which only proves to intensify them.

Celebrating your pet's life is a healthy way to channel your feelings, but for the most part, pet owners have been left to their own devices which can feel isolating and lonely.

I remember when I had to put down our family's first Airedale Terrier. I felt extremely alone because my husband was out of town and my regular vet wasn't there. That's because Bernie had become ill suddenly and I rushed her to a 24-hour emergency clinic near our house. After first being told Bernie was fine and just needed fluids, I left to take care of my son.

Then I was called backed just a short time with the perfunctory statement that I better get there NOW because she needed to be put down. I felt I was being pressured into a decision I wasn't ready to make. I finally let her go, but after the experience, I was inconsolable. Making decisions like these are hard enough, but when you're in the midst of turmoil, your grief and pain can be greatly exacerbated.

Perhaps things are changing now. Recently, I had an opportunity to tour a new pet funeral facility that opened in a nearby community. The man who owns the facility comes out of the human funeral business and the same kind of care and concern for the deceased and the family is evident in his company. I didn't come away feeling like this was something just for wacko's who dress up their pets, but maybe it was s step towards acknowledging pet loss as a normal, significant event in our lives. I wish there had been a place like this when Bernie passed so I would have been left with more than the clinic staff asking me for $824.93 and "disposal instructions."

I know that the time will come when I will have to say goodbye to my dogs, Amber and Krissy. Now I feel more prepared though. I will grieve and I will celebrate and I will not feel crazy. I'd only be crazy not to.
About the Author
Robin Reynolds is an award-winning writer who has more than 25 years of experience writing in a variety of formats. An Airedale Terrier lover since youth, Robin lives in Tempe, AZ with her husband, teenage son, and two Airedales. Visit Nice Creative and Life to Max.
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