How to Cope with the Loss of a Pet

Baloo is no longer a spring chicken.

Last week I had to have her teeth cleaned. It’s a semi routine procedure. My vet told me that dogs of a certain age need this kind of “maintenance”. Of course sensing that she was in for something, Baloo totally put on the brakes at the door. But then when the vet tech took her and walked her down the long corridor to the operating room, where should would be sedated and worked on, she kept turning around to look at me standing at the door. She was terrified and honestly, so was I. Baloo, is my everything, she is my best pal, my little guardian, my baby, my familiar. And at that moment I reflected on what life would be like for me without her.

I never had a dog as a kid, in fact, it was the one thing that I wanted more than anything, and it was the one thing my parents never gave me. So as a result I have never had to cope with losing someone as close to me as Baloo.

I would like to give my sincere condolences to anyone who has lost a pet recently.  And here is some advice from my pal April Lang, a psychotherapist and animal bereavement specialist, on how to cope with the loss of a loved critter:

“For many people, there are few bonds in this world as strong as those between a human and non-human animal.  There are myriad reasons we bring animals into our lives:  to keep us from being lonely, to have a playmate, to nurture one who has been abused and/or abandoned, or even to save a life that’s about to be destroyed.  The attachment that forms between people and animals can be so profound that we are shaken to the core by all the feelings that will inevitably arise when they are no longer with us.  And the questions will follow.  Is what I’m feeling normal?  Who should I talk to?   How can I cope?

The most important thing to remember is that losing an animal will stir up the same array of emotions and thoughts as if you had lost a human family member or friend.  Feelings of sadness, anger, resentment, loneliness, guilt, and hopelessness are all common.  And they will be present whether you had to euthanize your animal companion, give him up, or cope with her being lost or stolen.

Coping with this immense loss will be easier if you find the right person to talk to, be that a family member, a friend, or a therapist. The type of relationship is not nearly as important as whether or not this person truly understands and is sympathetic to, what you’re going through.  What you want to avoid at ALL costs is opening up to people who minimize your loss and say things like, “it’s only an animal” or “just get another”.

While talking about your loss to the right person will help you move through the mourning process, you will likely come to the point where you’re looking for closure.  Memorializing your animal family member is a good way to accomplish this.   Consider having a dinner with friends where you all reminisce about the animals that have been in your lives.  Assembling a photo album with pictures of your animal companion is another option.  You could even hold a memorial service or make a donation to an animal charity in your companion’s name.  Do what feels right, for you.

If after a reasonable amount of time you find that you are still having difficulty functioning in your daily life, that you’ve cut yourself off from loved ones, and that you no longer enjoy the activities you used to, it might be time to consider professional help. Finding a therapist who specializes in animal bereavement would be a good place to start.  You can find out more about the field of animal bereavement by going to the website of the APLB (Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement). They also have a list of therapists whose practice includes animal bereavement.”

April Lang, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City.  In addition to her regular therapy practice, she specializes in animal bereavement and couples therapy.  She will also be starting an animal bereavement support group in January.  Please visit her website, or call her at 212-577-1357 for further information.

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