By Elizabeth O’Brien, LPC
Among the clients I see are those grieving the loss of a pet. In fact, the other day, I received a call from my veterinarian asking that I drop off more of my business cards. Ours is a particularly dog-friendly neighborhood, featuring dozens of wild Greenbelt trails.
It might sound silly to some that certain individuals would actually visit a therapist to help them process the loss of an animal. Animals are not humans, after all. We get them for companionship, for protection, for our children. We get them because they amuse us, because they are beautiful, because they can confer status. Sometimes, we get them on sheer impulse. They are of a “lower order,” and hence subject to our whims. Most live only a few years, and then they die, or, if they’re suffering, we put them to sleep. Perhaps after some time has passed, we get another. Many people don’t believe that animals have consciousness, or souls, and that they can easily be replaced.
But for those who have a deep affinity for animals, or who have always incorporated pets into their lives—and families—the death of a pet is heartbreaking and even tragic. They feel the loss viscerally, and it diminishes their lives. A family or pack member is gone, leaving a gaping, ragged hole. A unique personality is extinguished, and the equilibrium of life is shattered. The owner’s very identity can be shaken.
So how can therapy help?
Beyond the obvious catharsis of talking through one’s grief, regular therapy for even a short while can be beneficial. It can serve as a designated time set aside for the critical work of grieving—something humans avoid at their peril. Denying grief, or distracting oneself with work or unhealthy preoccupations, can backfire. It can stop one up, block the flow of healthy emotions, result in painful incongruence of self. A death, whether human or animal, must be acknowledged and honored. As an integral part of life, death must be reckoned with. And a good therapist can help the client create a coherent narrative that makes emotional sense.
Therapists can also suggest specific actions that could help soften the blow, or at least offer an arena for tangible processing. Creating a ritual around the animal’s death, for example, is a good way to begin. If the pet is dying, but hasn’t yet passed, the client could consider asking the vet to make a house call to euthanize the animal, with the family gathered around and touching or holding the pet. When the pet has died, owners can choose to allow the vet to dispose of the body, bury the pet themselves, or have the pet cremated. Vets act as middlemen with pet crematoriums, and the pet’s ashes are generally returned in an attractive urn, along with the pet’s ceramic paw print. These keepsakes can be meaningful, and owners can choose to keep the ashes or scatter them outdoors, at the animal’s favorite place. For those who bury their own pets, a simple family “service,” including spoken remembrances, is comforting. A homemade grave marker or even a custom-made headstone can memorialize the pet.
When our beautiful parakeet Tango died unexpectedly, we buried him in the woods behind our house. Each family member offered an anecdote, or comforting words, and we marked his grave with a tall, sturdy stick, to which we attached his favorite toy. When Jordan, our Labrador Retriever, was suffering from cancer, our vet came to our house and put her to sleep as my daughter cradled her, and our family, including our young Bichon, stood by. Afterwards, I allowed the Bichon, Buffett, to sniff her body, in hopes that he would understand.
Journaling about the pet is another effective strategy. Writing marries the rational left brain with the emotional/creative right brain, delving deeply into the unconscious mind. Painful material can then be “excavated” and brought up into the conscious mind, where it can be more readily expunged. Creating a photo album, scrapbook, or even a colorful timeline of the pet’s life is another positive initiative.
There are also countless online resources addressing pet loss, featuring blogs, support groups, reading suggestions, etc. One especially comprehensive site is pet-loss.net.
In closing, I’ll share a quote from the inimitable Texas firebrand Kinky Friedman, who established an animal rescue ranch in the Texas Hill Country many years ago. He said: “They say when you die and go to heaven, all the dogs and cats you’ve ever had in your life come running to meet you.”
A consoling thought, indeed.