Anyone who ever told a grieving pet owner, "Get over it – it's just a dog," never met Keeper.
Fuzzy Davis met Keeper when he was just a stray puppy hanging around the dock where Davis was a charter fishing boat captain. The shaggy-haired husky-golden retriever mix spent every night sleeping under the ramp that went down to the dock at Calibogue Sound in Hilton Head, S.C. One night during a storm, Davis ventured out to check up on his boat. The puppy followed him down to the dock, soaking wet. That's when Davis knew he was, well, a keeper.
Keeper accompanied Davis on fishing trips for the next 13 years — 3,000 trips by Davis' count. Friends joked that Keeper must have been a fisherman in his past life. He barked excitedly whenever Davis' customers reeled in a fish. If they stood for a picture with their catch, Keeper would sneak into the shot.
Dealing With Death
When Keeper got cancer, Davis traveled five hours to Atlanta so he could get chemotherapy treatments. When he finally died a year later, an artist friend tied saltwater fishing flies using his hair; Davis gave them to his friends. Finally, Davis cremated Keeper and scattered his ashes in a favorite fishing spot.
"Now they call it Keeper's Cove," Davis tells WebMD. "I was just there last night to fish."
Maybe your favorite doggie or kitty didn't get written up in the local paper or have a memorial attended by a fleet of fishing boats. Maybe you're even a little ashamed to admit to friends or family how sad you were to see Spot go.
Fortunately, pet grief has emerged from the doghouse. There's now a bevy of books, support groups, hotlines, and online forums where you'll find others who will share your pain — or at least listen without being dismissive.
Why We Grieve So Deeply
When Dallas-based author Diane Pomerance lost her favorite dog seven years ago, she found herself grieving more deeply for the dog than she had for her father. "I was crying all the time," Pomerance tells WebMD. "I had a very short fuse. I couldn't concentrate or focus on work. Family and friends kept telling me, 'It's only a dog. You can get another one.'"
Instead, Pomerance sought to understand her grief. She became certified as a "grief recovery specialist" by the Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based Grief Recovery Institute. She started a support group for grieving pet owners at the SPCA of Texas in Dallas, and wrote a book on losing a pet.
There are many reasons why we may grieve as deeply for the loss of a pet as we do for a friend or relative, Pomerance says. "These animals offer us unconditional love. They don't betray us. They don't have an agenda. They are always forgiving and happy to see us. And they're with us 24/7. When we're home we can let down our guard with them." Pets also provide a link to the natural world and its rhythms, Pomerance notes.
Pomerance's support group gives pet owners the freedom to grieve. Its participants come from all walks of life. One retired doctor came to the group with photos of a Dalmatian he had lost 25 years earlier, she recalls. He also brought an urn containing the dog's ashes. "He curled up and cried like a baby," she says.
"The bonds with our beloved pets are in many ways stronger, purer, and far more intimate than with most others of our species," says Wallace Sife, a retired psychologist and author of "The Loss of a Pet." "We feel loved and secure in sharing our secret souls with them. How often can you do this safely, even with someone who is very close?"
Sife heads the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement. Its Web site features a chat room staffed by moderators Sife has trained in grief counseling. "They come out with a lot of insight, and relief that there's nothing wrong with them," Sife says about chat room participants. "They realize they're not alone in their grief."
The Internet has also promoted shared rituals and even mythologies meant to console grieving pet owners. For the Monday Night Candle Ceremony – which was born online but occurs offline – pet owners light candles to memorialize their pets at a set time every Monday. And in a slightly more elaborate version of a story parents might use to console their children, many sites present the story of a "Rainbow Bridge," which deceased pets cross on their way to a worry-free pet heaven.
While mourning for a pet is normal, not everyone experiences it in the same way, Pomerance says. Lonely people can become especially attached. And grief can be cumulative, she notes; if you have suffered other traumas recently, losing a pet can be the straw that broke the camel's back.
Deep mourning for a pet for more than a few weeks may indicate there are bigger issues affecting the mourner's psyche than just the loss of a pet, Sife says. When Sife's pet bereavement counselors come across such a case, they refer the person to a psychotherapist, who has a much wider range of training.
What to Do?
The process of coping with grief may begin before the pet dies.
Some people prefer to experience a pet's death at home with friends or relatives rather than in the cold confines of an animal hospital. Many veterinarians will agree to come to your home to perform euthanasia, Pomerance says.
Pomerance owns 16 dogs. When one dies, she combines the euthanasia with a memorial service that includes friends who knew the animal. "It's somber but also a thing of joy and beauty and gratitude," she says. "We thank the animal for its companionship."
While the question of how to grieve is intensely personal, experts generally say it's important to feel free to express your emotions and memories. For example, Sife suggests keeping a log of your thoughts and feelings. And, of course, visit the online chat rooms and message boards and offline support groups and hotlines linked to humane societies around the country.
For those experiencing severe grief, Sife suggests writing a letter to yourself, taking on your pet's persona. "Observe how you are reacting to the loss, and ask yourself if your pet would want you to continue this way. We all know pets would want the best for us, because that's what love is about."
Children and Pet Death
For children, the loss of a pet may be their first exposure to death. It may be much more affecting than the loss of an aunt or grandparent who they rarely see, Pomerance says. A pet's loss is a key moment for teaching children about the value of life. So give the child space to mourn, says Pomerance, who has written a book specifically designed to help children cope.
You may want to help the child make a scrapbook or journal about the animal, Pomerance suggests. If the child seems puzzled by the concept of death, she says parents can compare the cycle of life and death to the natural cycle of the seasons.
Above all, never try to dismiss the child's loss or to foist another animal on the child too soon. "The main thing is to be empathetic and supportive," says Pomerance.
Sources: Wallace Sife, Ph.D., Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement. Diane Pomerance, Ph.D., author, Finding Peace After the Loss of a Loved Animal Companion, — Polaire Publications, 2006. Fuzzy Davis, author, Doggone It: Man's Best Friend Can Fish. Collins Doughtie, The Island Packet, May 15, 2005.
By Richard Sine
Reviewed by Louise Chang, M.D.
© 2006, WebMD Inc. All rights reserved