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Losing your best friend: How to cope with the death of a pet

Irene Cooper
The Broadside

John Grogan struck a deep chord with animal lovers with his book Marley and Me, which chronicled the life and death of the well-loved “worst dog ever. Pets offer loyal companionship
and unconditional love, commodities that can sometimes be scarce in human relationships. The loss of a pet can be devastating, but the ensuing grief is often underestimated or dismissed. Darren Hassell, a counselor at Central Oregon Community College Center for Career services, Academic advising and Personal counseling , said students may experience pet loss as an added stress to their already intense lives.

“Loss compounds the stress that already exists. A student may say, ‘I’m not getting along with friends, my classes are demanding, and my dog died,” stated Hassell. Because grief develops differently individual to individual, experiencing the loss long-distance adds a different dimension.

“If a person is present when a pet dies, the one-on-one touch he or she experiences may result in a greater immediate reaction [ to the death],” said Hassell. He continued, “But if the  person is not present, it is more difficult to put the loss in a completed category.”

Hassell recommended asking several questions that could help in the processing of loss, such as, “What would you have handled differently or better?” and “What are the hopes and dreams that you have to say good-bye to?”

“The problem with that is that it is a low point,” said Hassell, but it serves to help the person move ahead.

Hassell will sometimes ask questions about how a person was taught to deal with loss growing up, in order to be aware of changes he or she might want to make in dealing with his or her current loss. Writing a letter to the pet and/or keeping a journal may also help. It can be effective because it “incorporates the senses,” said Hassell.

Author and animal advocate Jon Katz has written several books about animals in people’s lives. His latest, Going Home:Finding Peace When Pets Die was released earlier this year. Katz talked about his book in an interview on Reuters.com, a business and financial website.

“Today people are developing very powerful relationships with animals,” said Katz via the website. He believes people are experiencing more fragmentation in their lives, and are in need of more connection.

“We need to bond and animals are filling this hole.” With this connection, however, come the difficulties in letting go when a pet dies.

“People need to bring rituals into grieving,” offered Katz. In his book, he tells of a combat veteran who, anticipating the death of his beloved dog, set out to give him a “perfect day,” a ritual that helped the man say goodbye.

The five widely-acknowledged stages of grief include denial, anger, guilt, depression and acceptance. These stages may manifest differently according to the individual. The important thing is to allow them to occur. The website helpguide.org, a non-profit source of advice on a variety of health concerns, states that feeling sad, frightened or lonely is typical and normal. Problems
with processing grief can occur when family or friends of the person experiencing the loss are unsympathetic or dismissive of his or her pain.

When someone says, “Oh, it was only a cat/dog/bird, etc.,” it is important not to argue, states the site. The person may not understand, or may react inappropriately due to his or her own anxiety. The griever might need to look outside his or her normal circle for support. The Internet has become a significant resource for pet loss blogs, story sharing, and tips on how to cope.

There is no standard period for when grief subsides. The best advice seems to be, go ahead and feel the loss, express it to people who are best able to understand, share memories, practice some ritual of good-bye, get some sleep, eat well and go do some exercise. Love yourself as well as your pet did.

Counseling is available by appointment in the CAP Center in the lower level of COCC’s Barber Library.

(contact: at icooper@cocc.edu.)

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