Pets at Peace


Just as when a human member of the family dies, the feelings of loss and grief over a pet can be intense for the survivors


Posted on Mon, Dec. 15, 2003 in the Monterey Herald


knichols@montereyherald.com

At the pet cemetery in Prunedale, the markers tell the story of grief made visible.

"Mocha Ray -- loved and adored by all except for the mailman," reads one plaque. "Pandora -- Our Beloved," is another, embellished with a photo of a smiling husky.

Week in and week out, the manager of Monterey Bay Memorial Park for Pets sees people overwhelmed by the loss of their longtime companions -- cats, dogs, turtles, hamsters, ferrets, parrots, iguanas and more.

She has seen people shrieking and crying, but also those who just want to talk.

"I've had grown men sobbing on my shoulder about their kitties," said manager Lara Love. "I think when they come here, they feel it's a place where someone else understands their grief."

The memorial park, in addition to providing gravesites, memorial plaques and cremations, also allows people to hold services for their pets.

And that's an important step in learning to live with the loss of a pet, say the experts.

Pet grief is still a tricky issue, and it's one coming to the forefront for those who cherish their animals. To have a pet is to invite heartbreak -- that's almost a certainty, since the majority of us outlive them.

It's a topic that Monterey Peninsula psychologist Dr. Larry Lachman has been exploring for two decades, and he acknowledges that it's still difficult territory.

A animal behaviorist as well as a clinical psychologist, Lachman is an unabashed pet lover who has suffered the loss of several beloved dogs during his life.

"The death of a beloved pet is a uniquely painful situation most of us are not prepared to deal with," he wrote in his 1999 book "Dogs on the Couch." "To many people, their pets are more than just dogs or cats or parrots. They are legitimate members of the family. And just as when a human member of the family dies, the feelings of loss and grief over a pet can be intense for the survivors."

He said one of the most important things for all people -- pet owners and others -- to keep in mind is that it's acceptable to experience grief for a pet.

The worst thing that anyone can say to the grieving owner is "Get over it, it was just an animal," or "Why don't you get another one?"

For pet owners, the death of a companion animal can be even more painful than that of a human relative, Lachman said.

Pets give us three things that we don't always get from human relationships: unconditional love, uninterrupted listening and permission to be touched. When those are taken away, Lachman said, it can affect us more than we think it will.

The phases of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The pet owner may feel all of these, as well as guilt, if he or she had to make the decision to euthanize the pet.

The first step is acknowledging grief and knowing that it's normal. As with any loss, people need to take time to express their grief in order to process it.

There are "four tasks of mourning" that Lachman makes note of in his books:

 To accept the reality of the loss.

 To work through the pain of grief.

 To adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing.

 To emotionally relocate the deceased and move on with life.

One way in which to accept the loss is to hold a ritual or ceremony, such as a funeral, for the animal.

Lara Love said all kinds of funerals are held at the Monterey Bay Memorial Park for Pets, everything from simple "goodbyes" to Buddhist rites.

People can scatter their pets' ashes there, or opt for a gravesite with headstone. There is also a "Wall of Memories" where people can purchase a plaque that can be engraved with a name and message. If people prefer, they can have their pets cremated and take their ashes home in an urn.

Another way to ease the pain is to find a caring person to listen. A sympathetic friend can suffice; some people may want to turn to professional counselors.

Lachman, who has organized pet grief support groups in the past, said giving voice to the pain is vital.

"You shouldn't stuff your feelings, or distract yourself from them," he said. "It's important to have supportive people in your life."

And it may take a while to work through the feelings.

"The deeper you love, the deeper you grieve," he said.

Lachman said people who are anticipating the death of an older pet can also do something he calls "predict-prepare-practice." Making plans now, and thinking about how to handle it when it happens, can ease the heartbreak when it comes.

Lachman is doing that himself.

"I have a 9-year-old flat-coated retriever named Max who is dealing with a chronic condition called Cushing's Disease and has required some pre-cancerous growths to be removed, bringing up the mortality pre-grieving issues," he said.

He plans to have him buried next to his former dog, Fagan, a golden retriever who died of bone cancer, and is buried at Seabreeze Pet Cemetery in Huntington Beach.


Surviving the loss Dr. Larry Lachman recommends the following to help grieving pet owners move through phases of loss:  Experience the emotions instead of stifling them with alcohol or drugs.  Talk to a support person or people who won't make light of your bereavement over the pet's death.  Ritualize the loss through talking about the good and bad times that the pet's memory evokes. Conduct rite-of-passage rituals such as a graveside memorial service, putting together a remembrance photo album, organizing a family get-together, taping a farewell song or preparing a remembrance video.  Allow time to heal. The love for the deceased pet didn't materialize overnight -- it was solidly built month after month, and year after year. The same applies to the hurt and grief. Little by little, month by month and year by year, the hurt lessens and the mourning process runs its course.  Get sufficient rest and nutrition.  Take off from work whatever time is needed.  Consider joining a bereavement or pet loss group.  Don't get another pet unless you feel emotionally ready for it. Taking some time to fully mourn the loss -- six to 12 months, at least. || From the book "Saying Goodbye to the Pet You Love," how friends can help the bereaved pet owner:  Don't give pep talks or advice -- just listen. Avoid cliches like "It was God's will."  Don't encourage the person to get on with life as if nothing has happened. Acknowledge their loss.  Don't get them another pet. That choice should be left to the pet owner. Dr. Larry Lachman recommends the following to help grieving pet owners move through phases of loss:  Experience the emotions instead of stifling them with alcohol or drugs.  Talk to a support person or people who won't make light of your bereavement over the pet's death.  Ritualize the loss through talking about the good and bad times that the pet's memory evokes. Conduct rite-of-passage rituals such as a graveside memorial service, putting together a remembrance photo album, organizing a family get-together, taping a farewell song or preparing a remembrance video.  Allow time to heal. The love for the deceased pet didn't materialize overnight -- it was solidly built month after month, and year after year. The same applies to the hurt and grief. Little by little, month by month and year by year, the hurt lessens and the mourning process runs its course.  Get sufficient rest and nutrition.  Take off from work whatever time is needed.  Consider joining a bereavement or pet loss group.  Don't get another pet unless you feel emotionally ready for it. Taking some time to fully mourn the loss -- six to 12 months, at least. From the book "Saying Goodbye to the Pet You Love," how friends can help the bereaved pet owner:  Don't give pep talks or advice - just listen. Avoid cliches like "It was God's will."  Don't encourage the person to get on with life as if nothing has happened. Acknowledge their loss.  Don't get them another pet. That choice should be left to the pet owner.