After the sudden, sad death of my sweet terrier, Cricket, I became interested in what a “professional” might say about the matter of losing a beloved pet.
I was particularly sensitive to the feeling that while Cricket was not a child, she was something close to that. I was aware that there are far worse things that can happen in a person’s life than the death of an adored animal. I wanted to know more about what my emotions were all about; how to manage them; how to keep things in perspective.
I talked with Mary Feaster. She has a master’s degree in counseling from the University of South Carolina. She is a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and has worked in Columbia hospitals, with groups of people working through profound grief and loss.
She also loves animals and volunteers her time at Pawmetto Lifeline, a not-for-profit animal rescue organization in Columbia. She leads a free, informal support group to help people deal with the loss of a pet. The group meets every fourth Sunday of the month from 3-4:30 p.m. at the organization’s facility, 1275 Bower Parkway. You may go to www.pawmettolifeline.org or call (803) 465-9173 for more information and to register for the program.
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All that being said, here’s what Mary told me.
My first questions: “Why is the loss of a beloved pet so difficult? The rational side of myself says Cricket was an animal, not a child. It should not be so hard. The emotional side of myself says Cricket was a living soul, a dear companion, and thus, a tremendous loss.”
Mary’s response: “What you are going through is totally normal. One factor that plays into this is that society in general does a lousy job of dealing with grieving for humans, much less for animals. It is hard. We have to deal with our emotions. Many people will say inappropriate things like, ‘It is just a dog – get over it.’ Or, ‘Just get another one.’ These people do not get the animal-human bond so they are not the ones to seek support from. We have to give ourselves permission to grieve the loss of our pet. The depth of grief is dependent upon the depth of attachment. If your pet has been a loyal companion, giving you unconditional love for years, why wouldn’t you grieve when you lose them? It is a huge loss. We shouldn’t minimize our pain.”
Another question from me: “Why do I feel so guilty about making the decision to put Cricket to sleep as opposed to going to great, considerably expensive lengths to keep her alive? I asked the vet if he would argue with my decision to put Cricket to sleep and he said he was ‘100 percent behind’ me. Still, I feel awful about the decision I made. How can we know what the right thing to do is?”
Mary: “Having to euthanize a pet is devastating. It is hard because we can’t explain it to them. We are responsible for their well-being. Unfortunately, we just can’t get away from the guilt at the loss of a pet. We beat ourselves up with ‘If only I had done this or that.’ We play the scenario over and over in our heads, but it doesn’t help. We have to choose to believe we did what was best for our pet and that we can’t change the result. What probably produces the most guilt is euthanasia. It is a heavy decision that should be made with the help of a vet who can provide answers as to the facts of what our pets are facing. The bottom line question is, ‘Is my pet suffering?’ If so, that is when we know it is time. We have to ask ourselves, ‘Are we putting their needs first or our own? Would more treatment cause more suffering?’ When I had to put my diabetic Yorkie to sleep, my vet told me we could make him live longer, but we couldn’t make him feel better as he was in kidney failure, a very painful condition. He also told me the price of loving is grief, but we wouldn’t want to give up the love and joy our pets give us to avoid that pain. Also, we have to look at euthanasia as the last loving thing we do for a pet. We keep them from further suffering.”
Me: “Now I know this may sound absolutely ridiculous, but right now I can’t listen to sad songs. I don’t think of people I’ve lost; I think of Cricket. Normal?”
Mary: “It is very normal to feel sad when you hear sad songs. You are grieving. You can’t rush it. Be easy with yourself.”
Me: “What to do with my grief? I know, in time, I will feel less sad. But in the few weeks after her death, how is the best way to ease my sadness?”
Mary: “One of the tasks of dealing with grief is to identify our feelings associated with it – guilt, anger, sadness, depression. Then express them by talking with a friend, going to a support group or writing in a journal. Keeping your feelings bottled up inside is the worst thing you can do. Come up with a way to honor your pet such as volunteering at a shelter, creating a photo album or making an online post. There is a wonderful poem called ‘Rainbow Bridge’ which is a must-read.”
Me: “Is there anything else that people should think about in the aftermath of a pet’s death?”
Mary: “Other issues that come up are helping children cope, realizing other pets in the household will be affected, and when to move on and get another pet. Running out and getting a new pet the next day is not a good idea. That is not fair to you or the pet. We don’t want to get a carbon copy of our previous pet either. Each pet is unique and when you can look forward instead of backwards, you will be ready to share your love with a new pet.”
Salley McAden McInerney is a local writer whose novel, Journey Proud, is based upon growing up in Columbia in the 1960s. She may be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.