My sister’s dog served as our feisty family mascot for more than a decade. Her death from a seizure earlier this year felt as if someone ripped a branch from our family tree, and the loss still hurts. That’s why I was intrigued when Paws, Whiskers and Wags, the Georgia pet crematory that handled Daisy’s remains, introduced monthly group grief counseling sessions.
Licensed clinical social worker Christy Simpson facilitates the group sessions with a dose of Southern charm and plenty of compassion as attendees share stories of love and loss. Eventually, most walk away realizing that they are not alone. Even Simpson has a tale of loss — coupled with the need for help coping with pet grief.
“I’ve spent 20 years in the mental health field and I saw a dearth of these services,” she says. “I’m also an animal lover and I had a euthanasia experience with a beloved cat. I wanted help, but could not find a counselor in Georgia that specialized in this.”
To expand the scope of her private practice and help other grieving pet owners, Simpson is studying to be certified as a pet loss counselor through the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement. Psychologist Dr. Wallace Sife, author of “The Loss of a Pet,” founded the organization and runs the certification program, which has helped Simpson and others understand how people grieve the loss of a pet.
“For the most part, the stages are similar; you deal with shock and denial, anger and distancing, guilt, depression,” Simpson says. “But the final stage is not closure, it is resolution. You grieve and want to move forward in a way that memorializes them. You want to do better.”
She also notes that everyone handles the loss differently. For many, the grief can be more acute when a pet has been euthanized, and Simpson works to provide tools that help counter feelings of guilt. My friend William of Atlanta felt guilty at the very thought of having his dog euthanized, even as he watched Jerome, his faithful companion of 12 years, endure a dramatic, two-year decline. Whenever he mentioned euthanasia, his partner argued against it.
“He had given me a lot of joy for many years, and I owed Jerome when he was not at his best,” William says. “I was paying him back for all the good years.”
Over time, William and his partner witnessed Jerome becoming more fragile, mentally and physically. A dog that never soiled his bedding suddenly had accidents on a daily basis, requiring frequent baths. At night, Jerome paced the hardwood floors nonstop. Outdoors, steps leading to the sidewalk in front of their home became impossible to navigate, so he had to be carried. But on nice days, Jerome seemed happy sunbathing on the porch. William and his partner found ways to cope with the new normal — until someone slipped a note under their front door.
“It said, ‘Put the dog out of his misery,’” William says. “I booked an appointment the next day. We thought we were sacrificing for Jerome for being so good to us, but we didn’t have the guts to do what he needed us to do.”
That anonymous letter served as a painful wake-up call, one William still has to this day. But he does not regret a moment spent with Jerome — even during those last difficult months. About a month after Jerome’s death, the family cat passed away at 14 years of age. Without a tinkling dog collar or a cat lounging on the sofa, their home suddenly felt quiet — and empty. After a short grace period, the couple adopted a dog, Jesse, and two cats.
Not everyone is ready to embrace another furry companion after the loss of a pet. For some, the pain can be so intense that it lingers for years. If you are suffering with the loss of a pet, here are some tools to find relief.
Find a support group
The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement offers a list of pet bereavement support groups in several states. Most humane societies also offer group sessions. Psychotherapist Marcia Breitenbach recommends this approach because it allows pet owners to see that they are not alone. If your community does not have a pet grief group, she suggests attending bereavement group sessions, which typically are offered at churches or hospitals.
“It’s important to be around people who are dealing with the same thing in the sense that the feelings are identical,” Breitenbach says.
Give yourself permission to grieve
Even if others do not understand the loss, Breitenbach and Simpson say that it’s important to take time to grieve.
“One of the things that astounds me is when people say, ‘It’s just a cat, you can get another one.’ But they would never say at a funeral, to a widow, ‘there’s more fish in the sea,’” says Breitenbach, author of “The Winds of Change.”
“It’s hilarious to think about that, and yet we do say that to someone who lost a family member,” she adds. “They just happened to be furry or feathered or slithery or whatever.”
Ask loved ones for space to heal
Feelings of guilt and isolation can fester if loved ones are not supportive. Breitenbach notes that many mates are simply uncomfortable with their partner’s grief.
“They want it to go away and they want it like it used to be,” she says. “It’s not out of bad intention; it’s just that they don’t know how to be supportive.”
If friends or loved ones don’t understand your loss, Breitenbach suggests clearly communicating what you need to heal. “Most people in marriage or partnership want to respect the other person. “Be specific about things that make you feel heard and say, ‘I need you to refrain from …’”
Be honest with your employer
If the grieving process extends to the workplace, Breitenbach suggests open communication with supervisors. It helps to share an article about pet loss and be specific about what you need. It might be as simple as acknowledging that you may need a bathroom break to have a good cry, or it may be that you will have a funeral tomorrow and would like time off to do that.
“Let them know that you would prefer if they didn’t say anything when you come back,” she says.
Let go of the guilt
Whether your pet died as a result of an accident, a prolonged illness or natural causes, feelings of guilt are common in the grieving process. Breitenbach says most people develop a parental role with their pets and the loss resembles the loss of a small child. To move forward, she often suggests that patients write a letter to their pet, clearing out everything in their heart. Then, she asks them to write a letter from the pet.
“Even if it’s what you hope to hear from your pet, what comes out is right,” she says. “Usually it’s a lot of love and no judgment.”
Use the loss as a teaching opportunity for kids
Most children under the age of 5 do not have a real concept of death, so the loss can be a teaching opportunity. Breitenbach says, “If they ask frequently where the animal is, say they died, their body didn’t work anymore and they won’t be coming back.”
Simpson also recommends that children be part of the grieving process, as long as it is age appropriate based on their developmental level. That may mean allowing children to visit the cremation establishment, participating in the burial or selecting a memorial.
“So many of us want to shelter our children from suffering,” she says. “They know what’s going on. When you let them say goodbye to the remains, you normalize grief in general.”
Breitenbach adds that children grieve differently. They can be upset and then five minutes later they are out playing with their friends until later when they are looking for the animal to come sleep with them, she says. Follow their lead to determine the best approach.
Step out – even if it hurts
Breitenbach suggests enrolling in activities that you could not pursue when you had a pet. Try a new cooking class or continuing education course that takes you out of the house at least once a week.
“Widen that circle and know that it takes a while for the house to shift that energy,” she says. “Some rearrange furniture or change the interior or do something to change the interior. It’s soothing and may actually help to take away an automatic connection between the chair and your dog always sitting there.”
In time, consider another pet
Simpson says that you will know when it’s time to adopt another pet. To avoid feeling disloyal to your deceased pet, she suggests approaching the process slowly. Visit an animal shelter or a foster organization, but don’t commit. “It’s a subjective feeling,” she says. “Most of us know when it’s time to go back out there. You can’t push. “
Even with a 2-year-old running around, it’s a bit subdued at my sister’s house without our feisty Daisy. But she smiles down from a mural in my nephew’s room. During each visit, I share stories about Daisy so that he doesn’t forget our first fur kid. I know that eventually we will have to paint over the mural, and I don’t look forward to that day.
Until then, we point, we smile, and we remember.