Thursday, February 17, 2011

Is Saying Farewell to Fido a "Real" Loss?

Growing up, I can’t remember a time when we didn’t have a dog. In fact, I am blessed to have a mom who not only loves her children unconditionally, but also has a HUGE heart for adopting “misunderstood dogs”. And, when I say “misunderstood”, I really mean dogs that were too big and too rowdy for our modest two bedroom bungalow. It took us a few tries to find the best dog for our family’s lifestyle, but when I was sixteen, we hit the jackpot of all doggy jackpots! We adopted Porkchop!

Porkchop Toby Harris was our lazy beagle who we liked to refer to as “a cat trapped in a dog’s body”. He didn’t fetch, showed no interest in dog toys (but too much interest in food), barked once a day (at the mailman, naturally), tolerated being dressed up in ridiculous costumes and loved to just lay around snuggled up to a warm body. Porkchop was the epitome of a “loyal companion” and “man’s best friend”. More than that, Porkchop was one of us. He was family. His run in the Harris household lasted 13 years, and sadly in October 2010, we had to have Porkchop put to sleep. It was one of the most difficult losses our family has had to face. However, some in our society may not consider Porkchop's death a “real" loss.

Recent surveys indicate that over half of American families have a pet (only 34% have children) and more than 84% consider their pets family members [source:]. I think it’s safe to assume then, that more than 84% of pet owners would say that they love their pet. So, when trying to figure out if a pet’s death is a “real” loss, let’s ask ourselves this: “If we have the capacity to love our pet, don’t we have the capacity to grieve the loss of our pet?”

As with any loss, it is necessary to surround yourself with support when your pet dies. Make sure there are people in your life that you can talk to openly about fond memories as well as your feelings of grief. Remember that your feelings of grief will vary and that sometimes you’ll be able to talk about your pet and laugh and at other times you’ll feel like crying. Laugh when you need to and cry when you need to! Shortly before Porkchop died, a couple of my siblings and I laid on the floor with him, shedding tears and sharing memories. It was such a sad, but healing moment! Today, four months after his death, there are still a few tears shed when talking about Porkchop or when someone is missing his presence at a family function. There is a healing quality to those tears, so shed them at your dismay!

When a pet dies, it’s also important to remember that every family member may experience feelings of grief that are unique to them. For older adults, the relationship with a pet is often the most meaningful relationship they have in their lives. The death of the pet can have a significant impact, particularly if the older adult is isolated from human contact [source: A. Wolfelt]. For the person in charge of the pet’s day to day care, their total daily routine changes when that pet dies which may a difficult transition. A child’s experience with the loss of a pet can be significant not only because the pet is considered a family member, but also because the death of a pet is often a child’s first experience with grief and loss.

Close friends of mine recently lost their dog Missy (an adorable, meek and loving Toy Poodle) after finding out that Missy had a rare blood disorder. I was blessed to be kept in the loop and able to provide support from the time that Missy was diagnosed, to the time that my friends had to make the devastating decision to have her euthanized. Such an agonizing few weeks for my dear friends! Although I would never wish this situation on anyone, I will say that I was in awe of the way my friends coped through (and are coping with) this loss. Missy was loved by all in that household, especially by my friends two daughters, ages 3 and 6. With the sudden onset of Missy’s illness, my friends had quite the parenting dilemma on their hands. How should they involve or not involve the girls in Missy’s illness and pending death? Their approach to this very difficult situation is why I am in awe. As parents, they made sure that the girls were kept informed in an age-appropriate and sensitive way and gave their daughter’s the choice to be as involved as they wanted in Missy’s care, yet encouraged them to take the distance they needed. My friends shed tears in front of their daughters (daddy included) and explained that they were very sad about Missy's sickness and death. They allowed the girls to make “get well” cards, visit Missy in the vet hospital and gave the girls an opportunity to say goodbye before Missy was euthanized. Recently, my friend called to tell me that the girls had just finished two paintings of Missy that were promptly hung up in the hallway for the family to admire. What an awesome ritual of remembrance! As difficult as this loss has been for my friends, I am confident that these little girls have had such a healthy first experience with grief. An experience that will, undoubtedly, help them in the future.

So, is saying farewell to Fido a “real” loss? YES! We love our pets and, despite all our flaws, our pets unconditionally love us! So, if you’ve lost a pet, grieve that loss. You deserve it and so do they.


For more information on coping with pet loss, check out this article by Alan Wolfelt, Ph.D.

1 comment:

  1. YES YES YES! You know how I feel about my dogs, about all animals really, and this loss can be felt just as profoundly, and yet completely uniquely, as a human loss. LOVE this post, love the blog, love you!