Dealing With the Loss of Your Pet

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July 25th, 2010, 8:28 am #1

Dealing With the Loss of Your Pet
The death of a companion animal can be as devastating as the loss of a human friend or family member – and the grieving process is very similar.
By Kim Nagy for WebVet
The first thing to remember when you lose a pet is that there is no "right" or "wrong" reaction you can have to such a profound loss in your life.

You might feel full of rage or completely numb with shock or simply feel the need to cry and/or talk. All of these are completely normal reactions.

Dr. Susan Cohen, the director of counseling at the Animal Medical Center of New York, provides reassurance and advice for those struggling with pet loss.

Cohen remembers her own terrible grief as a child when she lost her longtime cat, Becky, after 14 years of companionship.

"When my parents told me after one of my (choir) performances, I used every ounce of control I had to keep from just losing it. I hid behind the choir robes in the back of the bus and cried to myself," recalls Cohen.

The most important thing to do if you're experiencing pet loss, according to Cohen, is to find a place to let your feelings out and be heard.

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"When I got back to school, I told my best friend as I was sitting in his car. I sobbed for 2 hours straight — big gasping sobs, accompanied by the story of her life, the shock of this first big life loss, and apologies for being unable to stop. He didn't know what to say, but he listened," Cohen said.

Helping Others Grieve

As a lifelong animal lover, Cohen noticed her terrible sadness after the loss of every pet she ever owned as she went on to pursue a career in counseling. Surely, she thought, other people must be having the same experience.

"With pets, remorse can sneak up on you. I remember thinking that since so many veterinarians didn't have the time or training to deal with grief, wouldn't it be great if there was a social worker in this area?"

Cohen went on to become a pioneer in the field of grief therapy for pet owners. Today, from arranging pet loss support groups to private counseling at the prestigious Animal Medical Center of New York, Cohen creates resources and emotional support that can help heal the very real grief and sense of isolation pet owners feel when they lose a pet.

Different Ways of Grieving

According to Cohen, often family members and friends are on different timelines in the process of grieving for your pet. So, they might criticize you for the level of grief or guilt you are experiencing, which can lead to even more painful feelings of alienation. By attending a pet loss support group or seeking professional counseling, you can voice the normal range of your feelings to those who are neutral. In support groups, you might even feel relieved to meet people experiencing similar feelings, such as guilt or depression. Most importantly, all of these proactive measures will help you move through the natural grieving process involved in losing a beloved pet in your own way.

Stages of Grief

Some things you might experience during the loss of a pet:

Shock: If you feel like you are simply going through the motions, you're not alone. Most people go in and out of shock after the death of a loved one.
Anger: Don't be surprised if you find yourself cursing your veterinarian under your breath. When you lose a pet, it's natural to feel the need to blame someone, maybe even ourselves as a means of gaining control over unalterable events. However, if you are still feeling rage after six months, you should seek professional counseling.
Bargaining and denial: One immediate response to the shock of loss is to create a protective fantasy that our pet is still alive or seek to bargain with God. If this stage isn't too prolonged, it's normal. If it goes on too long, it's time to seek professional help.
Guilt: Do you suffer from the sinking feeling that you could have done something to save your pet? Looking directly at the facts, or even x-rays or vet reports, can be a healthy reminder that you did the best you could.
Depression: Be gentle with yourself and the real loss you are experiencing. Feeling listless or breaking into tears is a completely normal response. If you are feeling suicidal, seek professional help.Acceptance: Some people don't like the passive tone of the word, but this doesn't mean that what's happened is "OK'' with you. It means that you've come to a place where you can accept that your life is permanently different.
Last Updated: 11/04/2009
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