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By Larry Kaufman, M.S., LMFT
Sue, a 79-year-old widow, came home from shopping to find the front door of her house smashed in by a burglar. As upsetting as this was, she had another terrible surprise awaiting her. Her cherished parrot Petey - her companion for nearly 40 years - was missing from his opened cage. "I'm surprised I didn't have a heart attack right on the spot!" she remembered, with anguish in her voice. How would you go about trying to help Sue?
When people think of pet loss they usually think of an animal dying. But there are many different types of loss and no matter how the loss occurs, the guardians of these pets often have intense reactions as a result. They may experience distress, anxiety, guilt, depression, sadness, loneliness, and other unpleasant feelings for quite some time after. How you talk to them about their feelings and reactions can make an important difference in their lives.
Some people do not take pet loss seriously. They think people are silly for grieving over a pet. They are quick to tell you to get on with your life and get another animal. They cannot understand how you can become so attached to a dog, cat, bird, or other pet. Out of fear of being put down or ridiculed, many animal lovers keep their strong feelings of attachment to their pets - and their grief in relation to them - to themselves. They are then left alone with their upsetting feelings of bereavement. This is not healthy.
As a pet loss counselor, I am frequently asked by concerned people what to say to bereaved pet "owners." Most people who have had an animal companion die - or have lost their valued relationship in some other way - appreciate these responses:
Adopt an attitude that conveys that you are taking the distressing experience of the mourner seriously. Listen and speak with empathy, understanding, support, sensitivity and compassion.
Show interest by asking the mourner about the circumstances of the pet's death/loss.
Convey that you welcome hearing the stories of his/her fond memories of her/his animal friend. Ask how the pet got his or her name, and encourage the mourner to tell you how the pet became a member of the family.
Refrain from asking if the mourner is planning on getting another pet, or suggesting where such a pet might be bought. A pet owner might feel offended by this - despite your good intentions in asking.
Avoid the use of clichés - such as telling the mourner that time heals all wounds, or reassuring them that they will soon "get over it."
Send the mourner a condolence card - one specifically made for pet loss, if you can find one and if it seems appropriate. Writing a thoughtful line or two (or more) on the card, in your own words, will probably be very much appreciated.
Write down the dates that are important to the bereaved pet owner, like the dates of the pet's death, birth, adoption, etc. Consider sending a follow-up note, e-mail, or card, or making a telephone call to the mourner in remembrance of these special days.
Send a donation, in honor of the deceased or lost pet, to an animal-related organization (such as a humane society, animal shelter, or one devoted to improving the health of animals through medical research).
After a few weeks or months, follow up by asking the bereaved individual how she or he is doing in his/her mourning process over the loss of her/his pet. (Use the pet's name and correct gender).
Be cautious about making assumptions on how you think the mourner might be feeling and reacting. Realize that the mourning process, as with people's responses to the death of human loved ones, can be multi-layered and highly complex. Keep in mind that everyone is unique, with her/his own needs and preferences. Good judgment is essential in dealing with people in such a vulnerable state.
Encourage the mourner to talk to a professional if their grief is prolonged or especially intense. Psychotherapists who specialize in pet loss counseling provide a supportive, compassionate, and knowledgeable presence to anyone grieving the loss of a pet.
Larry Kaufman is a professional pet loss counselor and psychotherapist on the staff of the Samaritan Counseling Centers. The Centers have offices in Palm Beach and Broward Counties. He is the president of the Animal Love and Loss Network. Larry is the founder and past president of the Palm Beach County Florida Chapter of the Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC), and is the chairperson of international ADEC's Pet Loss Special Interest Group. Phone: (561) 272-6322, Ext. 320 in South Palm Beach County, (561) 832-7788, Ext. 320 in North Palm Beach County, or (954) 463-6447, Ext. 320 in Broward County.