By Helen Fitzgerald, CT
I am an owner of two dogs and dread the day one of them dies. When my aunt's beloved dog, Poochie, died I was very sad and found myself on the floor crying. My faithful dog, Rusty, watched me for a while with a concerned look on his face. After a while, he silently got up, retrieved his favorite toy from his toy box, brought it to me, and laid it by my side to make me feel better. Is that unconditional love and understanding or what?
For many people, pets are like members of the family. Pets can have the same need for attention as children. They are dependent on us for their very existence. They give us unconditional love and are sensitive to our many moods. They are happy when we are happy and are sad when we are sad. And when they die, we grieve, as we would for anyone that we love dearly.
The grief of pet lovers is often ridiculed or dismissed by others. As a result, we might be inclined to keep quiet about our feelings and not share them with family or friends. After all, they might be thinking, it's "just a dog" or "just a cat." To someone who has come to love a pet, its death can thus be made doubly painful because there is no one with whom to share the grief. Those of us who have had a beloved pet die know that this grief is real and painful.
How your pet dies may determine the intensity of your grief. Poochie was an old dog who was hard of hearing and whose general health was failing. My aunt knew that she would probably die soon and was preparing for that. But the unexpected happened. Poochie was let out of the house for her morning romp when she was attacked by two very large dogs and was mortally wounded. The grief of my aunt and uncle was intensified because of Poochie's violent and sudden death.
There are times when a pet is suffering so much that the vet may suggest the kindest thing would be to help her die gently. One possibility then, would be to hold your pet in your lap as she takes her last breath, as my aunt did. A tough assignment for any pet lover, but how reassuring it would be to know that her last thoughts would be of you comforting her.
What to do with the body is a question every pet owner faces sooner or later. When your pet dies, there are several options to consider. You might choose cremation and have the vet dispose of the ashes, or you might want to keep the ashes in a special box or vase. You might decide to bury your pet in your yard under a favorite tree. You will want to make sure to bury your pet deep enough not to attract the attention of predators. A third choice would be to have your pet buried in a pet cemetery, an expensive option, but one that many pet owners have chosen.
Finally, when a pet dies, there is the question of deciding whether or not to get another pet. If you were to set out to "replace" a pet that has died, I would strongly advise against it. The new pet -- even if it were a clone -- would not be able to live up to your expectations, and it would be a bad experience for both of you. To avoid this, I suggest you look for a pet that offers differences (i.e., sex, color, or breed) from the pet you lost. Learn to love your new pet for the unique personality that every pet has.
In the hospice movement, we attempt to assuage the grief of those who have suffered the loss of loved ones. Pets may be on a different scale, but the grief we feel when a beloved pet dies is real, and it helps to be able to share it with others.
An excellent book on this topic is When Your Pet Dies by Christine Adamec. (New York: Berkley Books, 1996.)© 2003. American Hospice Foundation. All Rights Reserved.