When my 18-year-old curly white poodle, Lacey, died, I did what writers do: I found a good book on the subject. The Loss of a Pet by Wallace Sife held my interest and comforted me. I especially related to the author’s statement about the decision to get a pet: “We volunteer for a duty that soon becomes a passion, an act of love, and our new lifestyle.”
The book wasn’t quite enough, and although I had solid support from my husband, Chuck, he found it upsetting when I talked too much about Lacey. The monthly support-group meetings at nearby shelters didn’t mesh with my schedule, so I set up an appointment with an animal-loving pastor at my church.
We talked about how this kind of death is a deep loss often not understood by people without pets. Lacey had given our family unconditional love and acceptance every day for 16 years. She’d skidded to the door every time Chuck came home, kept me company in my home office, and entertained us and our guests with tricks and mischief. How could anyone dismiss my grief after I’d made her special meals; walked her in the rain, sleet, and snow; washed her paws, and generally loved this dog madly?
There are lots of places to go for help when you’re mourning the loss of a pet. Here are some recommendations.
Pet-loss sites offer information about sickness and health, euthanasia, and mourning a pet. There are lists of comforting books, directories of counselors, chat rooms, and virtual memorials where animal companions are honored with photos and stories. Some sites offer free one-on-one grief counseling.
Animal Welfare League of Alexandria, 4101 Eisenhower Ave., Alexandria; 703-746-4774
Fairfax County Animal Shelter, 4500 West Ox Rd., Fairfax; 703-830-1100
Frederick County Humane Society, 217 W. Patrick St., Frederick; 301-694-8300
Montgomery County Humane Society, 14645 Rothgeb Dr., Rockville; 240-773-5973
The loss of a pet is hard on anyone, but some people need more help than others. “Many people are not aware that the grieving process can last three to five years,” says Carol Hendler, a clinical social worker in Chevy Chase. “The components are similar whether the loss is human, canine, feline, equine, or any animal special to us: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. One difference with pets is that the anger is often at ourselves, not a higher power, since the human owner is totally responsible for their pet’s well-being. We wonder if we went to the vet too late or why we didn’t notice the broken fence slat.”
From local therapists and The Loss of a Pet, here are suggestions that go beyond putting one foot in front of the other:
• Change your routine. Replace morning dog walks with a yoga class.
• Seek support. Express your feelings to family and friends, at a place of worship, in a support group, or with a therapist.
• Honor the pet with a memorial service, an altar, or a donation to a humane society or shelter. Keep a lock of your pet’s hair.
• Help other animals: Volunteer as a foster parent for a rescue organization or walk dogs at a shelter. Pet-sit for friends. Drive a pet from foster care to a new adoptive home.
• Get a new pet? This should be a family decision. “People need time to grieve before moving on, or they may not be able to bond with the new pet,” says Hendler. To avoid comparing the new pet with the old one, Silver Spring therapist Robyn Zeiger recommends choosing a different breed, or at least a different color and gender.
For those who want to talk to a therapist, these four specialize in pet loss and are recommended by local shelter staff:
Carol Hendler, 5480 Wisconsin Ave., Suite 220, Chevy Chase; 301-718-6298; firstname.lastname@example.org
Celia Ward, 3030 Q St., NW; 202-342-0124; email@example.com
Ursula Weide, 6917 Arlington Rd., Suite 223, Bethesda; 240-229-1893, 801 N. Pitt St., Suite 113, Alexandria; 703- 548-3866
Robyn Zeiger, 10300 Sweetbriar Pkwy., Silver Spring, 301-445-7333; firstname.lastname@example.org
An Amazon “pet loss” search yields 699 results. Here are two books that provided comfort for me:
The Loss of a Pet by Wallace Sife. Sife is a Brooklyn psychotherapist and founder of the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement. His book offers compassion and practical information.
Dog Heaven by Cynthia Rylant. Although it’s recommended for preschoolers, many adults have found solace in this illustrated book about dog heaven, with its vast fields, angel children, and endless supply of biscuits.
Trained counselors, therapists, and veterinary students can provide a listening ear, comfort, and support over the phone. Many have dealt with the loss of a pet, so they understand the profound sorrow and difficult decisions involved. Some veterinary schools, including Cornell’s, have hotlines operated by student volunteers trained in grief counseling. Call or look online for hours of operation.