Grief

COPING WITH GRIEF

COMPANION ANIMALS

CAN I STAY WITH MY PET WHEN HE IS BEING EUTHANAISED?

RITUALS / CEREMONIES

CHILDREN & PETS

MY OTHER PETS ARE NOT THEMSELVES – IS IT POSSIBLE THEY TOO ARE GRIEVING?

THE ELDERLY & THEIR PETS

SUPPORT GROUPS / COUNSELING

SUPPORTING SOMEONE IN THEIR GRIEF

IS IT TIME TO GET A NEW COMPANION ANIMAL?

COMPANION ANIMALS
Our companion animals mean different things to different people, often they take on the role of best friend and confidant, they may be a substitute child, they are often assistance dogs that are not just friends but help us cope with the outside world and sometimes they’re working dogs. They provide us with unconditional love, they don’t judge us, they don’t expect anything in return except love and they forgive us for a raised voice for a forgotten walk or for a ‘bad hair day’. Many people still believe that when we lose a companion animal we’ll be ok in a day or so, people may tell us ‘it’s only an animal’ and ‘you can just get another one to replace it’ ‘there’s plenty of good dogs needing homes out there’. Despite the special relationships we have with our animals some people will undervalue the importance of them in our lives and under value our relationships with them. It is important to understand that the human – animal bond can be as strong as any relationship, that it is unique and should be respected. Many people will find that when they lose their animal that they may not have a support group surrounding them as their grief is not respected by those people around them.

We all grieve differently, we may feel guilt, anger, sadness depression, some people will openly cry, others like to be alone, others like to be with their remaining animals and some people need to get away from their memories for a little while. Which ever way we grieve there is no right or wrong way, there are no rules in grief, it does not take X amount of days to get through the pain. For some it may take a week for others it may take years. One day you might be happy the next day you might feel sad or angry again. It’s important to take each day and each feeling as it comes and not to expect too much from your self.

CAN I STAY WITH MY PET WHEN HE IS BEING EUTHANAISED?

The short answer is ABSOLUTELY and it is encouraged if you think you’re able to cope. Euthanasia of a beloved pet may be one of the hardest decisions we ever have to make. Some people will ‘just know’ when its time to have their animal put to sleep and others may need advise from their veterinarian. Once the decision has been made that it is time to have your animal put to sleep the next decision to make is whether or not you will stay with him during the euthanasia. When an owner is present during the euthanasia, a peaceful death is witnessed. Compassionate vets will explain the process and will consider the comfort of the owner and the pet, and will allow you to grieve and spend some time with the animal after he has passed away. For that animal that has been in our life for 6 months, 6 years or 16 years many people feel as though they owe it to the animal to be by his side while he passes. For some, witnessing the euthanasia will be the beginning of the grieving process but for others witnessing the death of the animal may be too much to cope with. Before deciding if you’re ready to stay with the animal when it is euthanaised or if the child should stay it is important to get all the facts, talk to your vet first, have them explain what will happen, once your decision has been made, respect it, once your child’s decision has been made, respect that too.

RITUALS / CEREMONIES

A ritual can be as simple as lighting a candle, reading out a poem or saying a prayer. It can be cremation or burial in a pet cemetery, service in the back yard or a walk in the park. Rituals should be encouraged to allow the grieving people to say their goodbyes. Some people make scrap books, put up photos, post photos on web sites. You could sponsor a cage at an animal shelter giving it the name of your animal. Do what makes you or the child feel comfortable, let the child have a say in the ceremony, and if they’re not comfortable don’t force it, you can say goodbye in your own way. Writing a poem, drawing a picture or writing down memories can often help.

CHILDREN & PETS

The bond with a child and his animal can be life long. The animal is often a friend to lean on and a shoulder to cry on. A child’s companion animal is often that child’s first meeting with death; how the adults and family members in that child’s life deal with the death of the animal can be life changing. The role the parent, friend, teacher, doctor and veterinarian play at this point in a child’s life can be very effective if they’re understanding and accepting of the true bond the child – animal had. It is important to treat the child’s grief as real, respect it, try and remember how it felt to lose your best friend when you were young. It is often thought that a child deals well with grief; grief is individual, each child will cope differently however children grieve just as intensely as adults. It is also important not to lie to the child, don’t tell them that the dog ran away – they may continue to wait for the animal to return for years and it will not give them closure. When children are told by their parents that the dog has gone to a new home or the cat has run away the parent is not unintentionally being cruel however the child will still feel rejected, they may feel that puss didn’t like their home so she found a new one. When Children learn the truth later on even years later they may feel as though their parent deceived them. It is important to explain how or why ‘puss’ died, talk to them gently, encourage discussion, let them know that it’s ok to talk about how sad it is to lose ‘puss’. Often a gentle talk is all that is needed to help the child open up and get through the sad times. Depending on the child’s age they will be able to understand some details and not others so keep it simple and consider their age before you explain what actually happened.

MY OTHER PETS ARE NOT THEMSELVES, IS IT POSSIBLE THEY TOO ARE GRIEVING?

Of course. The reason we love our animals so much is because they are individuals with unique personalities, who also feel happiness and sadness. If your pets were particularly social, slept together, played together then chances are the remaining pets are going to feel some sort of loss. Obvious signs of that they are distressed are; destruction when the animal is left alone, if the animal is young it may become very vocal; crying and whimpering, the remaining pet may soil in the house, refuse to eat or drink or go for walks, he may sleep excessively, become restless, and often they may not want to leave their owners sides. Your remaining animals may not show any signs at all of distress, again their feelings are individual so feelings can not be predicted.

So, what do you do if your animal is distressed?
It’s important to keep their routine as close to normal as possible, animals, particularly dogs need routine; the more the animal can predict his day the more settled he will feel. Don’t reinforce your pets distressed behaviour, sometimes owners can accidentally do this and short term problems can become long term problems. If the animal refuses to eat it is best not to hand feed them as they can soon learn that this special treatment is better than eating out of their bowl. Try giving the animal extra attention when he’s doing something positive rather than sitting listless on his bed. Try to encourage games, walks and fun activities; this may help the owner as well. Owners may also notice a change in the ‘pecking order’ with the remaining animals, especially if the animal that died was at the top of the pack. This is normal and to be expected however it is important to ensure scuffles don’t become serious, too much interference from the owner may result in the hierarchy being unstable for longer periods of time and not enough interference could result in injury. If you’re unsure seeking advice from a dog trainer or veterinarian is advisable.

Many people may wonder if getting a new animal for the remaining pet is helpful. The remaining animal is mourning the deceased animal and should be given time. If this is the sole purpose for getting another animal then as well intentioned as it may be it may backfire as the owner and animal may not be emotionally ready for a new member of the family. Keeping in mind that a new member of the family deserves his own quality time where all people in that family can involve him, train him, and spend time introducing him to his new life.

ELDERLY PEOPLE & THEIR PETS

Animals in the lives of elderly people often take on many roles; they include that of best friend and companion, protector, they give the person a reason to get out and exercise and socialize and are they are depended upon. It is often assumed that when their pets die they too will die or they will not cope. Many elderly people actually cope better, they have often had their partners, friends, sometimes even their children pass away and have learned how they best cope and get through the tough days. It is important for the those that do have an elderly friend or relative that has lost an animal to understand that they need a friend and a shoulder but not necessarily a replacement animal. Many people go out and buy their elderly relative a puppy or new animal assuming it’ll help them forget. This is not the best thing for most people, they usually don’t want to forget, the replacement animal is often too young and needs a lot of care, the person often is not ready for another animal or has decided not to take on the responsibility of another animal again.

SUPPORT GROUPS / COUNSELING

There are many effective support groups out there that can help those grieving the loss of their companion animal. Support meetings are a place to go where people are going through similar situations, having similar feelings. For some people the groups may be the only place where people understand what you‘re feeling. It’s a special group of people where you can tell your story, have a friendly face to face talk and a shoulder to cry on.

Counseling may be beneficial for those that need more than just a friendly face; they may need professional help to get them through their lowest times. It is important to take into consideration that there is nothing wrong with seeking advice or care or help, at some stage most people will need some sort of professional care, just because you have lost an animal it doesn’t make it any less difficult to deal with.

(see our page for a listing of companion animal bereavement counselors)

SUPPORTING SOMEONE IN THEIR GRIEF

Again there are no rules when helping someone through their grief. There are no right things to say, there are no lists out there of what will make it easier for them. Your role as a friend is to simply listen. Many people don’t want advice; they just want a shoulder to cry on. As an animal lover you can empathise and understand their grief but their grief is individual, you can’t take their grief away from them, you can simply hug them, give them a comforting touch, be there for them let them know you care. When it’s time for them to talk listen to them, don’t just hear them – really listen to them. Don’t pre-empt what they’re going to say, don’t interrupt, just listen, feel what they’re saying, remember they have just lost a very special companion in their lives and life will never be exactly the same for that person again. Don’t tell them ‘time will heal all wounds’, ‘life goes on’ for some people time does not do this, cheering up may not work for a lot of people, solving their problems is not why they have asked for your support. For some people they may not grieve until days or weeks later, their grief may go on for a long time or may never be expressed. Remember as an animal owner you too will eventually lose a companion animal and will need all the support that is out there, especially from friends.

IS IT TIME TO GET A NEW COMPANION ANIMAL?
There is no correct length of time to wait before bringing another pet into your life. Grieving is different for everybody.
Some people need to have a period of time without a pet while for others a new pet helps to ease the pain of losing a beloved pet. When the time comes for you to bring another pet into the family just remember that this animal is equally deserving of your love. It will never replace your lost pet but you now have an appreciation of just how temporary our pets lives are and are sure treasure every moment.

Lastly, keep in mind that we don’t necessarily get over our grief of losing an animal as much as we get through our grief.

Christie Reeves-Tate

REFERENCES

Crenshaw, D.A. 2001. The Disenfranchised Grief of Children. In Disenfranchised Grief: New Directions, Challenges & Strategies for Practice. Ed Doka, L. Research Press: Illinoise. Pp293-305

Meyers, B. (2002) Disenfranchised Grief and the loss of an Animal Companion. In Doka, K.J. (ed) Disenfranchised Grief : New Directions, Challenges, and Strategies for Practice. Research Press: Illinois. Pp251-264

Lagoni, L. & Butler, C. (1994) Stress in Hetts, S (ed) The Human-Animal Bond and Grief W.B Saunders Company. Pp292-330