Learning to Deal with Pet Loss

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Your relationship with your pet is special, and the grief you feel after the death of a pet is a natural response to that severed emotional bond.
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Russell's Pet Loss Graph is a timeline of pet losses, beginning during his childhood.
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Cole's Pet Loss Graph is organized by his age at the time of each event, rather than the date.
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Russell Friedman, Cole James and John W. James share mechanisms to deal with grief after the death of a pet in "The Grief Recovery Handbook for Pet Loss."

Dealing with pet loss is a form of grief that is often minimized by other concerns or by the feeling that the death of a pet shouldn’t inspire the heartbreak it often does. In The Grief Recovery Handbook for Pet Loss(Taylor Trade Publishing, 2014) by Russell Friedman, Cole James and John W. James, you will find ways to cope with and accept your feelings after a loss. The authors offer guidance to help you deal with the emotional changes pet loss makes in your life, allowing you to move through your grief without fear of judgment from others. The following excerpt is from chapter 4, “Your History of Pet Losses.”

Losses that occur when we are young influence how we deal with our grief. We observe and record the actions and words of the people around us, especially the adults, who are our tour guides. Some of what the adults do and say about their own grief and ours is correct, but a lot of it isn’t. Unfortunately, when we’re young, we don’t have a way to differentiate between what’s right and what’s wrong. So we assume that everything the adults do is correct, and we copy it. That’s why this next exercise is so important. It will help you see what you know and believe—and whether those ideas are correct and helpful for you as you deal with the impact of the death of a pet.

Most of the animals that are likely to be our domestic companions have relatively short life spans. There’s a high probability that you’ve experienced more than one pet loss. If that’s true for you, we’ll soon have you make a list of those losses, going back as far as you can recall.

Special Note: For those of you who’ve only experienced the death of one pet, you can make a list of some of the other losses that have affected you. They could be deaths of people; divorces or other romantic endings; career, health, or faith issues; and other losses. Think back especially to any of those kinds of losses that happened when you were a child. And then think about what you learned or observed in your family about dealing with those losses. Was there open talk about people’s grief, or was it hidden? Was it safe for you to talk about your feelings, or not?

Taking a little time to think about those things and making some notes about them will help you understand what ideas—helpful or not—you’ve brought to the death of your pet.

There are several reasons for this exercise. Primary among them is that as each of your pet losses happened, you were learning what to do—or not do—in reaction to the emotions you felt. And for those of you who just have the one current pet loss, looking back at other losses will help you see what you learned, in general, about dealing with your grief. It’s often in the aftermath of those events that we hear the four myths and other misinformation that trap us in our grief and keep us from recovery. Awareness of some of the beliefs you may have developed—even if you didn’t realize them before—will help you discard the unhelpful ones and become willing and able to adopt new, more helpful ideas.

We will go first and demonstrate two of our Pet Loss Histories to show you how. We’ll begin by creating a Pet Loss History Graph (see slideshow), followed by a brief description of the entries on the graph.

Russell’s Pet Loss History

1948—Neighbor’s Dog, Lucky Buttons, Got Killed.

When I was five, living in Rochester, New York, my family took our neighbor’s dog on an outing in the country. On the way back we had the windows open in the car. Lucky Buttons jumped out and got hit by a car and died. My parents told me not to feel bad—it was an accident, but I did feel bad, and being told not to feel that way confused me.

1953—Our New Puppy, Pixie, Died. We had moved from an apartment building to a house in North Miami, Florida. Now we could have a dog. We got a Jack Russell mix. My sisters and I named her Pixie. At the time, my mother had loaded up our freezer with cuts of meat wrapped in aluminum foil. When she took the meat out of the packages, she’d let the dog lick the foil. The dog got aluminum poisoning and died. My mother felt terrible, of course, and I was really sad. This is when my mother said, “Laugh and the whole world laughs with you; cry and you cry alone.” We got a cat shortly after Pixie died, and it definitely came under the heading of replacing the loss.

1959—Free-Spirited Calico Got Killed. We had a cat named Calico, whom we got very soon after our dog Pixie died. Although Calico lived and dined with us, he was a nighttime prowler. He’d often come home with cuts and scratches, and even once with a piece of his ear missing. One day we found him dead near the street. He’d been shot. Although I’d never really had much of a relationship with him, I was affected by his death and by how he died. My family didn’t talk about it, so I thought I just had to cover up how I felt.

1971—Baby Mama and Thirty Pet Rats. My wife and I had done a favor for a neighbor in our apartment building. We agreed to look after her four pet rats while she went away for a long weekend. The long weekend turned out to be forever. We became the confused owners of three adult rats—two male and one female, and a very young female. We named them Papa, Mama, Uncle, and Baby Rat. Baby Rat became a personal pet. She would lick our feet dry when we came out of the shower. She would sit on our shoulders and groom our hair. Baby Rat didn’t stay a baby for long, and she soon became pregnant. We renamed her Baby Mama. Baby Mama got pregnant again and again, and our family got even bigger. At one point we had more than thirty rats, but only Baby Mama ever became a real pet. Eventually she developed an inner ear problem that rats are prone to and started turning around in endless circles. We took her to our chiropractor who actually gave her an adjustment. It worked, but only for a few days. When Baby Mama died, we were grief stricken. We didn’t realize what an incredible bond we had with her, and we didn’t know how to deal with our emotions.

1972—Tasha, the Siberian Husky. When my wife Vivienne and I divorced, I became the sole guardian of our highly energetic young husky, Tasha. At the time, I owned a restaurant which demanded almost all my waking hours, seven days a week.

The little house I rented didn’t have a yard, and I wasn’t able to get Tasha the kind of exercise she needed. Fortunately, I was able to rehome her with a friend who lived near the beach in Malibu. Although I was heartbroken to part with her, I was thrilled at the life she got to lead living at the beach.

1988—Zoey, the Lab–Great Dane Mix. Zoey was Alice’s dog that adopted me when Alice and I became a couple. Zoey got cancer. I’d only known her about a year, but we were very close. One day, about two weeks before she died, we were in the waiting room at the vet’s office. An elderly gentleman sitting near us overheard that Zoey didn’t have long to live. He said, “When she dies, you should go right out and get another dog.” Fortunately, I had learned how to respond. I said, “Thanks, I really appreciate your concern,” and I turned back to Alice. In that situation, I was a griever, not an educator. I didn’t need to distract myself from the primary emotional issue of Zoey’s health by delivering a lecture about replacing the loss.

2005—Buda Died. The long story of Buda, the Hungarian Vizsla, appears later in this book. The short story is that Buda was my heart and soul. On Friday, he seemed to be the healthiest dog on planet earth. The next day, he seemed a little out of sorts. On Sunday I took him to the vet, where he was diagnosed with terminal, inoperable cancer. He was a rescue, who we thought was only about six and a half years old. The vet that Sunday thought he was closer to ten. No matter his age, the shock and devastation of the diagnosis was chilling. I was scheduled to fly to New York on Monday morning, to be on the Today Show with Matt Lauer. We delayed the end until I got back. On Thursday morning we were at the vet’s office for the last moments of Buda’s life. The next several weeks were among the most emotional of my life. The tears were constant.

Cole’s Pet Loss History

Ninja: Ninja was my first dog. I remember when our family moved from an apartment building to a house and the excitement I felt at getting the news that I could finally have a dog. We went to the pound and I got to pick him out. He was a beautiful shepherd mix. I bonded with him instantly. But as close as we became, he had other plans. He had a strong desire to explore and was constantly escaping from our backyard. We were always tracking him down in the neighborhood after one of his escapes. One day during a rainstorm, he ran away and we never found him. We put up flyers and looked for him for weeks. I felt terrible about it, as if we had let him down. Not knowing what happened to Ninja was very painful for me.

Max: After Ninja ran away, my parents made sure not to teach me to replace the loss. They encouraged me to talk openly about my feelings and never told me I shouldn’t feel the way I did. After some time, I felt ready to begin a relationship with another dog. We went to the pound and I found Max. He was a great-looking black Lab mix and very sweet. He loved to lick my face and I loved having another furry friend. We had him for three years and he slept at the foot of my bed every night. We were best buddies! Whenever I came in the door, Max would rush to greet me and lick my face. One day I came home from school and immediately knew something was not right. Max didn’t greet me at the door—he just stood near the fireplace. I went over to greet him and he growled at me. That scared me, as he had never shown me anything but love. I went closer to him and he growled at me again and backed up into the fireplace, singeing his tail, and then he ran into the backyard. I started to cry. I knew something was very wrong. At that point, my mom heard the commotion and came into the living room. I told her what happened. We found an overturned trash basket in our guest room where a friend of the family was staying. Max had gotten into some medication that our guest had thrown out. We called the vet, told him what was happening, and read him the label on the prescription bottle. He told us that there was nothing he could do for Max. He said Max would not make it, and in the meantime it would be excruciatingly painful. We went outside to find Max vomiting blood and trembling. I was terrified, unable to help the animal I loved so much. My mom called my dad and they realized we had to put Max out of his misery. Dad rushed home and used a pistol to end Max’s agony. I was inside, looking through the window. I was horrified at what was happening, but I knew that it was the right thing to do so that he didn’t suffer any longer.

Frankie Four Fingers: He was a very cool Australian bearded dragon. His main diet was crickets. I always loved taking him out of his terrarium so he could hang out on me. He liked my body heat. Eventually I gave him to my friend’s little brother. I felt bad since I had committed to take care of him and didn’t keep my word. I always hoped he was cared for properly, and I felt sad that I had given him away.

Figuero: Figuero was a beautiful black cat with stunning green eyes. We called her the princess of the night. She was a tough, scrappy cat, and she was free to roam in and out of the house. From time to time, she would come back with a nick out of her ear or some other injury. She got along great with all of us. She had great confidence and didn’t take any nonsense from our dogs. When she was about five years old, we were told that she had cancer and wouldn’t live much longer. Tough as she was, she lived another nine years. I got the news that she had died when I was away at college and I was sad that I never got to say good-bye to her.

Bull: Bull was a pit/lab mix with great brindle markings. He loved people but did not like other dogs. The only other dog he liked was our Doberman, Gemini. I will never forget the first day we brought him home. Gemini the older, bigger dog decided to take away Bull’s chew bone. The growl that came out of that pup was almost impossible to believe. We were all surprised and laughed at Gemini who got the message loud and clear. She never tried to take his bone again. The sight of that big Doberman backing off from the puppy is a picture I’ll never forget. Bull was very powerful. Everyone in the family felt protected when he was around. He was a loyal friend to me starting when I was in middle school. After I went away to college, I missed him; I was sad that I wasn’t around him every day as I was when I lived at home. When I went home on holidays, I saw that his health was starting to decline. We worried about his quality of life. He was retreating more and more into my parents’ spare bedroom. When it was time to help Bull die I came home and as a family we said all the things we needed to say to him before the vet gave him the last shot. It was one of the most emotionally painful things I’d ever been through. I was proud that I was there for him at his final moment on this earth, but I was very sad and knew I would miss him terribly. He was a great dog.

Gemini: Gemini—our neurotic, sweet, loving Doberman. I remember the day we picked her up from the breeder. We played with all the pups and finally chose her. In truth, she chose us. She pulled every cute puppy trick and we fell for it. We named her Gemini on the car ride home. She was very scared the first few weeks at our house, away from her mom and littermates. I remember sleeping with her on the kitchen floor to comfort her. Soon she was part of our family. One day when we came home, she made a face that showed her teeth. At first I was scared, remembering what had happened with Max. After a second though, we realized it wasn’t aggression—she was grinning at us. She couldn’t contain her excitement and broke out in a Doberman version of a smile. It was something I came to love about her. Although Gemini was really my mom’s dog, she had been part of my life for a very long time. When it was time for her to go, I remember crying uncontrollably as I said my final good-bye to her. I realize now that some of my emotion was about Bull, who had died before her, and how important those two dogs had been to me all those years in my life at home with my parents.

An Unintentional Benefit

There has been an unintentional but heart-opening benefit attached to the experiences we’ve had when our pets died. It has helped us understand the depth of emotion that can happen when the pets we love die. With that awareness, we are able to really “hear” the hearts of the callers who often tell us it feels like they’ve had more feeling with the death of their pet than when their parent or another person died. Many people might be aghast at that, or not understand it. It may seem to be a comparison, but it really isn’t. It’s just someone trying to explain how much heartbreak they feel when their pet dies.

Reprinted with permission from The Grief Recovery Handbook for Pet Loss by Russell Friedman, Cole James and John W. James and published by Taylor Trade Publishing, 2014.

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