Losing a Beloved Pet
Posted Apr 02, 2018
I love dogs. Growing up, we could not have pets in the house due to my brother’s asthma. Since I have been an adult and married, we have always had at least one dog in the house and at one time had four. Now we are down to two and find that more manageable. I cannot imagine life without a dog in the house. When they go to the groomers, the house feels empty. So, when my daughter announced that she had a new dog, I was excited for her and could not wait to see the puppy. It was when I asked her what kind he was that my heart sank. She said he was a pit bull. Now, the only thing I knew about pit bulls was what I heard in the news about how dangerous and vicious they were. So, I was worried. I must say that over the 14 years that Harrison (Harry) was alive, there could not have been a sweeter, more intelligent or more loving animal. His temperament was better than my little shih tzu. Harry got along with all other animals. He never showed any signs of aggression but did show lots of loving. Harry recently died and we are all mourning his absence.
We are fortunate today to live in a time where the expression of grief for an animal is more acceptable. Grieving a pet, use to be a form of disenfranchised grief in which the loss of a pet was not recognized by others. People could not show or express their feelings because others would say things like, “I can’t believe you are crying. It was just a dog, cat, rabbit, etc.” Today, there are pet hospices, support groups, online resources, pet obituaries and sympathy cards. In the March 11, 2018 edition of the Parade magazine that appears in the Sunday newspapers there is an article written by Leanne Potts on “For the Love of Dogs”. She states that there are 89.7 million dogs owned in the U.S.A. and around 75 percent of the dog owners say that their dog is part of the family. They estimate that 45 million dogs sleep in the bed with us. With all that love being given and received, there is also a lot of sadness and grief at the time of their death. Karen Brulliard reports in an article in the Washington Post about a woman who was diagnosed with takotsubo cardiomyopathy or broken-heart syndrome after the loss of her dog. While all our hearts feel broken after a pet dies, there are some helpful and healthy ways of coping with the loss:
- One of the most important things you can do is to find someone with whom you can cry and be open and honest with about your thoughts and feelings.
- Tell funny stories about things your pet did.
- Find support groups in your community or online.
- Every day for a week write down three of your happiest memories about your pet.
- Read comforting poems like the Rainbow Bridge.
- Plant a tree, make a garden or build something in your pet’s memory.
- Create a photo album of your pet.
A 2014 study by Michael Norton and Francesca Gino published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology demonstrated that grieving rituals help people cope. They state that it is the private, informal rituals that people develop that appear to be most effective. Examples might be a balloon release or scattering their ashes in a special place. Whatever you do it should be emotionally meaningful for you.
Recently, I received an email from a couple whose dog, Lilly, had died. I think it expresses all the thoughts and feelings that we all feel with the loss of a pet and why we continue to have them. They gave me permission to share it with you. “It is with profound sadness that Terry and I announce the passing of our wonderful pug, Lilly. At first there was disbelief, then sadness, then a deep sense of loss. Somehow the world just seems to be a little bit less whole without her. I am confident to say that most of us have shared the feeling before. Why do we do it, again, and again, and again? We do it because of the boundless love our furry family members bring to the table, their ability to make us feel better, and that sense of wholeness their just being there provides. What have we done to be blessed with dogs?”
 Norton, M.I. and Gino, F. (2014). Rituals Alleviate Grieving for Loved Ones, Lovers and Lotteries. Journal of Experimental Psychology; General, Vol. 143, No. 1, 266-272.