WHEN A PET DIES, IT'S IMPORTANT TO GRIEVE
THEY'RE NOT JUST ANIMALS, THEY'RE FAMILY
Portia, was a three month old ball of black curly hair when I adopted her in 1967. Half terrier, half standard poodle, they called her a Toodle. For the next thirteen years we were tied at the hip. Together we visited Toronto, Florida, Michigan and our last voyage was a cross country trip through the United States to Idaho.
She loved to travel and visit new people. Even people who did not care for dogs in there homes, enjoyed her visits. You would only have to give her a kitchen chair to sit on and she'd make herself comfortable.
In 1980 she took ill and all the veterinarian's attempts to save her failed. This was by no means the first pet I had lost, but this time as an adult, suddenly I felt like my child had died.
Well, finally times are changing, there are support groups for those who have lost pets, pet cemeteries and some people have learned to give sympathy to an unfortunate pet lover.
This change in our thinking comes from years of study into the impact pets have on the lives of humans. Researchers have discovered that having a pet can not only offer us unconditional love and steadfast companionship, lift our spirits when everyday problems have us down, satisfy our need for close physical contact and touching, provide us with an increased purpose and meaning to life, but the loss of a pet can be traumatic.
How then can we shrug our shoulders and say, "it was only a dog" (or other animal) when these noble, loyal creatures leave us?
The world around us, as well as our lives, is ever changing, having a pet can be a source of consistancy and help make us feel safe. In the book Your Emotions and Your Health, Hikoro Akiyama, Ph.D, a researcher at the University of Oklahoma has illustrated how pets can help people adjust to one of life's greatest traumas, the death of a spouse. He studied two groups of widows, those with and those without pets.
"There was a significant difference between pet owners and non-pet owners." Dr. Akiyama reports, "Non-pet owners, for example, had more persistent fears, headaches and feelings of panic. They also tended to take more drugs than the pet owners."
People with pets are seen as more attractive and valuable. Studies have shown that people are more likely to start up a conversation with someone who has a dog with them than with someone who is alone. Dogs can even help you exercise and loose weight, as they get you off the couch and out into the fresh air at least a couple of times each day.
Researchers have also proven that those who deal best with old age are people who continue to perform acts of caring. As we age and our kids leave home, spouses and long time friends pass away, sometimes there are no humans around us to care for, this is when pets become especially important to our well being.
In his book, Dogs Never Lie About Love, Jeffrey Moussaieff Mason speaks of a dog's grief at the loss of his master. "No other animal mourns for a lost human in the way that a dog does. It is possible, too, that dogs (like humans) recognize this similarity between the two species, this ability both have to love a member of a different species."
If you're one of those people who can not understand the bond that people can have with their pets, remember you do not have to experience the loss of a child, husband, mother or father to give comfort and tell the person you are sorry for their loss. Just like it is healing for people to talk about the good times they spent with their human loved ones. They need to recall memories they made with their pets.
One of the worst things a person can do is to suggest that their friend to get another pet to replace the one that has just died. It would be unthinkable to even suggest to someone who has lost a child that having another child would replace the one that was lost.
Of course, pets are not children, but to those of us who accept them as members of our families, we see them as individuals, each having a distinct personality. In time we heal and are willing to enjoy the company of another pet, but the new one can never take the place of the one we lost.
Since Portia's death, nineteen years ago, I have lost three other dogs and seven cats, two of which lived till nineteen years of age. Each and every one of them has never been forgotten and could never be replaced.
To illustrate the love between man and dog and the impact this love can have on those around them, Masson quotes from what Napoleon Bonaparte wrote at the end of his life.
"Perhaps it was the spirit of the time and the place that effected me. But I assure you that no occurrence of any of my other battlefields impress me so keenly. I halted on my tour to gaze on the spectacle, and to reflect on it's meaning.
This soldier, I realized, must have had friends at home and in his regiment; yet he lay there deserted by all except his dog….I had looked on, unmoved, at battles which decided the future of nations. Tearless, I had given orders which had brought death to thousands. Yet, here I was stirred, profoundly stirred, stirred to tears. And by what? By the grief of one dog."