Learning to cope with grief after losing a pet

Max the Magnificent was dead before his time. It was sudden, cruel and so unexpected.

For a while, the family blundered on with our daily burdens, each of us grappling hopelessly with the numbing realisation that a bright and constant light had been snuffed out.

A black cloud rolled in and blanketed our world.

For more than a week, an erratic autumn wind blew ancient tufts of discarded fur out of Max’s kennel and sent them rolling like tumbleweed through our open back door.

The house felt empty and silent; the back yard looked unnecessary and unkept; murky rainwater and grit formed a sludge at the bottom of Max’s food bowel.

My partner and I were surprised to have taken the loss so hard, and we worried about how it would impact on our two young children: “Why did Max die, daddy?’’ …“Are we going to die too, mummy?’’

Eventually, we gave that dark, nasty cloud a name.

We called it ‘Grief’.

Many people experience deep grief after the death of their pet. These people are neither crazy nor overly sentimental. Like you and me, they are everyday types whose response to the loss is absolutely normal.

In a 2012 article for The Washington Post, grieving pet owner Joe Yonan points to a range of international studies about the manifestation and place of grief after pet loss. When considered collectively, these studies expose fundamental truths about the legitimacy and strength of the human-animal bond.

The bond leads many of us to see our pets as family. Therefore, when our pet dies, we may experience feelings akin to those of losing a family member.

While society may not necessarily give us permission to grieve openly after pet loss, there is growing recognition of the need to treat the issue with respect and to provide expert information and support to those suffering a pet bereavement.

For example, the depression and anxiety awareness organisation beyondblue offers advice to pet owners about ways to recognise and deal with their grief after the death of a pet.

Victoria’s Department of Environment and Primary Industries also has a web page on the subject, where there is information and advice about ‘’pet loss and children’’, pet euthanasia, the grief process and how to cope with grief.

Pet bereavement was a major discussion topic at the Pan Pacific Veterinary Conference in Brisbane last month and, last week, Pets and Positive Ageing Inc hosted a seminar on the issue in Canberra.

Organiser Di Johnstone says the Canberra seminar attracted 40 people, including several veterinarians. Its aim was to increase awareness about the need to support older Australians with pets, particularly those who suffer a pet bereavement.

The guest speaker was Dr David Foote, a veterinarian, lecturer and pet-bereavement counsellor. He is also the director of the Intern Mentoring Program in the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney.

Dr Foote, who also spoke at the Brisbane conference, says veterinarians see first-hand the “powerful and difficult’’ struggle of people after their pet has died.

“For many people, their pet is the most important relationship in their life. So it can be a very tough thing to see a person lurching out the door after their pet has been euthanased,’’ he says.

Dr Foote says the main challenge is to change societal attitudes about pet bereavement.

“Pet bereavement is largely disenfranchised by our society,’’ he says.

“There is this problem of people saying they feel they are being told to ‘get over it, it’s only a dog, you can always get another one’.

“However, attitudes are improving, particularly now that there are more counsellors and organisations offering support – but there’s still a long way to go.’’

The Rev Barbara Allen will be providing pet bereavement support as part of her new role as the Spirituality and Creation Project Worker for the Victorian Synod of the Uniting Church of Australia.

Rev Allen, the former chaplain of Lort Smith Veterinary Hospital in Melbourne, says people can feel very isolated after the loss or death of a pet.

“For some, their pets may be their only immediate family,’’ she says.

“We need to make sure they are supported and understand that it’s okay for them to feel the way they do. They just want to be listened to and have their grief validated.’’

Rev Allen estimates that she counselled around 1500 people a year who suffered a pet bereavement when she worked at Lort Smith.

“The main problem is the hiddenness of the issue and the isolation that these people feel,’’ she says.

“As well as the absence of a dear animal companion, physical and mental health may be diminished by the loss of a pet. Someone’s animal companion may have been the reason they exercised, or the reason they got up out of bed each morning, or even the reason they took their prescribed medication. Animal companions love us unconditionally; they don’t ask about our line of work, our salary, comment on what we wear, where we live…they see our heart.”

Rev Allen says grieving for a pet may contain “different layers’’ to grieving for a human but is no less important.

“There are many different types of grief. In the case of our pets, to grieve is normal, and it is an honoring of the human-animal bond,’’ she says.

“Grief is grief, regardless of whether the one we love, who has died, has two legs or four.’’

While learning to manage pet bereavement is not formally assessed in Australia’s veterinary schools, Dr Foote believes they should give the topic “some time in the curriculum’’.

“There should at least be some information there for our trainee vets on how they can support owners going through this type of ordeal,’’ he says.

Some years have passed since we lost Max. My family’s grief has dissipated, just like the black cloud upon which it arrived.

Now a new dog lights up the back yard every day.

Our memories of Max are, in the main, not of how he died but how he lived. We often laugh about his antics, build great legends about his life, and express gratitude for his all-too-brief presence in our family.

Thank you Max. You were magnificent.

– STUART GILLIES

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*For more information about pet bereavement, pet loss and caring for pets in the last stages of their life, click on the highlighted links in this story, or visit these websites:

www.petfriendlyagedcare.com.au

www.petsandpositiveageing.com

www.cherishedpetcare.com.au

www.grief.org.au/resources/internet_links

… and if you want a taste of academic research about the topic, take a look at this 2012 Presentations Paper from Edith Cowan University in Western Australia.

*Stuart Gillies is the Digital Communications Officer of Animal Welfare League Australia.