Do our pets feel grief?
Unexpected loss can hit hard
Anna May Kinney
"When Champakali died on April 11 giving birth to a still born calf, Damini seemed to shed tears, then showed little interest in food or anything else, according to zoo officials." For 24 days, zookeepers and veterinarians tried everything they could think of to save an elephant who had lost her best friend and seemed determined to die, they even fed her intravenously, but nothing helped and they lost her.
This article about the death of an Indian elephant appeared in the Gazette back in May 1999, a month earlier there was and article about a donkey who died from a broken heart after his dog companion had passed away, was this true, do animals suffer grief the way humans do? Never did I expect that in less than a year I would witness this phenomenon first hand.
Throughout my life, my house has always been full of four footed companions, some cats, some dogs, all getting along well, all family. There were many occasions when an older pet had come to the end of the road and we all prepared for that final goodbye.
I had learned many years prior that pets need to say goodbye just as we do. When my darling Joy had to be put down because of breast cancer, I made sure to bring her body home so that her mother Pit-Pat would know what happened and have a chance to give see her one last time.
When our patriarchal blind cat Cou-cou took ill at 19 years old, every animal in the house found a way to spend special time with him. They would sit and clean him, cuddle and just purr so he knew they were there, but he was seldom left alone and when his time came everyone gathered around and said their good byes. It was heart wrenching but so beautiful to see such caring.
It is always hard to let go of an older pet when his time has come, but last year I had to face something I never thought possible, having to lose a young healthy animal to a fairly rare blood disease.
Up till last year Faith (Cocker Spaniel) and Elizabeth (Dachound/ Jack Russell Mix) who had the exact coloring, did everything together and loved each other like sisters, were referred to as "The Twins".
The other two dogs, Nina (mother Beagle) and Christine (daughter) were just as close. All of them loved each other greatly and played together, but each set of "twins" had it's own special bond.
Suddenly, during the last week of April my life was in turmoil, one of my "children" was ill and everything centered around saving her life. A week later, after the great effort of the best veterinarian I know, Dr. Nathlie Therrien, we lost our beloved Faith at only four and a half years old.
Yes, I've lost pets, a lot of pets, but never did I feel anything like this. The grief was overpowering for a long time, but I was quickly aware that not only were the people in this house experiencing grief, so were the other pets.
While Christine, Nina and Sweet Charity (cat) were sad and suffering this loss, Elizabeth was in trouble. She was so sad, I often saw a tear in her eye; she was lost in what to do. There were always those special times of the day that she would do something with her sister, now what?
She would pick at her food, and hardly eat anything; I had to feed her every drop of food by hand for weeks. When we went to bed she would go on her side of the bed, then about 15 minutes later, she would go to the foot of the bed, the exact spot where Faith would have slept and gentle place her cheek on the spot with her front paws spread out, as to give her a hug. It broke my heart, but I had to hide my sadness in fear I
would lose my darling Elizabeth next if I could not bring her out of this deep depression.
When it finally got warm and dry enough to play outside, no one wanted to, no one knew what to do. Faith had always been the leader of the pack, they listened to every bark or other noise she made, followed her body language, now who was in charge?
I worked all summer teaching Elizabeth how to lead, but she was even more confused than the others, it was like part of her, the fun part was gone.
Our little family will never be the same, we have all changed so much from this loss, we are a family who has lost an important member; we have learned some valuable lessons. Enjoy each and every day you have with a loved one for you never know when they will suddenly be taken from you.
For months Elizabeth sat on my bed, next to Faith's favorite stuffed toys, occasionally giving them a sad look, then one day she took the stuffed doggie, placed her head on it, cleaned it's ears, it was then that I knew she would be o.k.
Please remember that the grief over the loss of an animal companion can be as devastating as the grief felt for a human companion, here are a few ways you can help someone suffering from grief.
· Listen in a non-judgmental manner.
· Let them "tell their story" as many times as they need to.
· Share with them your wonderful memories of the person or companion animal who has died.
· Do not impose a time line for feeling better - there is no time line for grief.
· There is no right or wrong behavior for grieving - everyone is different.
· Reflect on the feelings they are expressing and help them actualize them and the reality of the death, do not play "I can beat that!"
· Do not tell them you know exactly how they feel - no one can ever experience pain, grief, and loss in exactly the same way.
· Do not tell them time heals all or that the person or animal they loved is in a "better place" - that may be, depending on your belief system, but they are not in the place emotionally to hear that.
· Know that they may have emotional setbacks; something might spark a memory and shove them rudely back to feeling like it is the first day of the loss.
· Be there for them in the days as well as weeks, months and years following the death.
· Do not try to fix them or things and make "it all better", no one can ever do that.
· Know that your friend will always grieve the loss but will learn to live with it and internalize the loving relationship that once was external.
· Help them celebrate the life of the one they have lost; whether it be a significant-other human or companion animal.
· The use of euphemisms tends to deny the extent of the loss and the fact that one who was loved is dead.
· Help those who are in the process of grieving develop the rituals they need to get through those early difficult times.
· Try to help the person who is mourning gradually withdraw the emotional investment he/she has in the person or companion animal who has died and to invest it in another mutually satisfying relationship.
If the person who is in grief is suicidal it is your moral and ethical responsibility to refer them to a mental health professional.
I found out that there are great, caring places online for anyone suffering the loss of an animal companion, here are just a few http://www.webpak.net/~angelpet/ http://www.rainbowsbridge.com
Washington State University http://www.vetmed.wsu.edu/PLHL/
This last one offers free grief consoling E-mail them at email@example.com or call us at (509) 335-5704. Our Phones are normally staffed during the semester on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday 6:30 - 9:00 PM, and Saturday 1:00-3:00 PM Pacific Time. We have abbreviated hours when classes are not in session. Our phone message is updated as our hours change.
If anyone has lost a pet and would like an online memorial page done in his/her honor, I would be glad to post it on my website for you, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org Subject: Pet Memorial.