When my beloved yellow Lab, Mojo, who was suffering from late-stage osteosarcoma, died the day before his 9th birthday in March, I was shattered. As much as I loved him, the intensity of my grief shocked even me. As someone who has endured a number of tragic losses of loved ones, even after I fell in love with Mojo, I couldn’t imagine I’d grieve this deeply for him when his time came, that the pain and longing would continue long afterward, that I’d sob at the sight of a Jumbone coupon in the newspaper, that I’d stumble on one of his old chew toys and fall apart. “Pet bereavement is equal to human bereavement,” explains clinical psychologist Alison B. Segal, PhD, of Healthy Behaviors of Westchester’s Pet Bereavement Center in White Plains. So why do I feel the need to suppress my sadness, even around friends? “Unfortunately, many people—even those in the field of mental health—don’t recognize that the death of a pet is on par with the death of a person.”
Indeed, though we are an animal-loving society, the concept of grieving for a pet still makes many people uncomfortable. Even now, it’s not uncommon to hear a whispered apology like, “She has no children, so Max was like her baby”—as if there is something embarrassing or strange about mourning a pet without a good “excuse.” I see the looks on the faces of some people—even those who were sympathetic at first—when I mention Mojo’s name, that “uh-oh, here she goes talking about that dog again” look of those who think I should be “over it” by now, that the grace period on their patience has expired.
This type of reaction is common, as are inconsiderate comments such as, “You’ll get another one.” Well, there is no “other one.” In late July, we welcomed a beautiful Golden Retriever puppy, Jesse, into our family. He is a joy and we love him dearly, but our grief for Mojo continues—one does not quell or negate the other. “Many people don’t understand the attachment process that typically occurs with a companion animal,” says Segal, and that the bond we form “is often one of unconditional love.”
Like many who have lost a pet, I feel that I still want to “take care” of Mojo and to ensure that he’s not forgotten. “Honoring your pet is crucial” to healthy grieving, says Segal. “This can be done by creating a memory box with a collar, photographs, and a favorite toy; creating a yearly ritual on your pet’s birthday; or donating his food, medicine, toys, and crate to an animal shelter.”
If you have children, involve them in these activities, since the loss of a pet “is often the first experience a person has with grief and sets a template for how they’ll grieve future losses.” With kids, Segal stresses, it’s also especially important to “be honest. Explain the death in age-appropriate terms, and allow them to talk about their feelings and ask questions.”
It’s also important to recognize when you or your child needs outside help to deal with the loss. Though there is no set time frame or pattern for mourning, if it is persistent, doesn’t “mellow” over time, or interferes with your day-to-day life (including relationships, work, or school), it’s time to seek help. Also, understand that children generally grieve differently, and are prone to “physiological symptoms like stomachaches, headaches, loss of appetite, and behavioral changes,” says Segal, so be on the lookout for these.
There are many useful resources out there—national, local, and virtual. The Animal Specialty Center (ASC) in Yonkers (www.vcaspecialtyvets.com) offers a Pet Loss Support Group, as well as a comprehensive, downloadable list of pet resources, including articles, books, groups, hotlines, and professionals. Animal-Link.org is another useful resource (www.animal-link.org/petloss.shtml). In addition, individual counseling is available, with many therapists who are experienced in pet loss and bereavement.