Counsellor considers the loss of her own pet

For Lucy

Pat Myers

Pat Myers

My hus­band and I recently made the heart­break­ing deci­sion to euth­a­nize our eleven year old beloved dog Lucy. As we have grieved her loss the coun­selor part of me has been try­ing to make some sense of both the process of grief as well as psy­cho­log­i­cal impor­tance of the loss of a pet. I know all the research about how pets enhance ourwell-being. At this moment of loss the scales seem hor­ri­bly tipped in favor of never expe­ri­enc­ing this pain again.

One morn­ing when I was feel­ing par­tic­u­larly sad about Lucy I remem­bered a client from years ago. This woman sought coun­sel­ing fol­low­ing the death of both a par­ent and a sib­ling. She spoke pow­er­fully of the months she had cared for her mother as she died. She sto­ically described car­ing for her brother as he too faced death just a few short months later. Then her eyes filled with tears and she began to sob as she spoke of the loss of her dog. She alter­nately expressed grief and fool­ish­ness. “Why should I be cry­ing like this? He was just a dog! Right?” This sen­ti­ment is the crux of why more peo­ple do not dis­close to their ther­a­pists or any­one else, the heart­break of los­ing a pet.

The research I found con­tra­dicts the notion of pets as non-important and instead sup­ports the idea that in Amer­ica we con­sider our pets as sig­nif­i­cant attach­ment fig­ures because they are part of our families.Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby may have been research­ing human to human attach­ment but their find­ings apply also to pets. Any­one who has ever loved an ani­mal knows the extent and the power of this attach­ment. Whyshould ther­a­pists care about this issue? Accord­ing to the Humane­So­ci­ety of the United States over 75 mil­lion Amer­i­cans own dogs and over 88 mil­lion own cats (cats would beg to dif­fer with who the owner really is but that’s another issue). The chances are any given coun­selor has sev­eral clients who are pet own­ers. Bruce Sharkin and Donna Knox wrote about the impli­ca­tions of pet loss for ther­a­pists inPro­fes­sional Psy­chol­ogy; Research and Prac­tice in 2003. They point out­some sig­nif­i­cant facts that are worth review. To start with the grief response is sim­i­lar whether we are griev­ing a sig­nif­i­cant per­son or an ani­mal. We feel numb­ness, guilt, sad­ness and depres­sion as we process the loss. We may feel excep­tion­ally guilty if we’ve made the deci­sion to euth­a­nize our pet.

Those of us who live alone may have the most dif­fi­culty cop­ing with this loss. One sig­nif­i­cant fac­tor in aid­ing recov­ery is the degree of under­stand­ing received from oth­ers. Over the past few weeks I have found it extremely help­ful to receive kind com­ments from oth­ers about our loss. At first I cried openly at these com­ments and now I take com­fort. Women may expe­ri­ence the loss more intensely than men. Although one man, in express­ing his con­do­lences, stated that it took him over five years to get over the death of his first dog. He looked­very sad as he told about this loss. The impli­ca­tions for pro­fes­sion­als include: ask­ing about pet own­er­ship and pet attach­ment at intake. This made such com­mon sense to me that I can’t believe it never occurred to me to ask for this infor­ma­tion. When peo­ple con­sider a pet as part of the fam­ily this is impor­tant infor­ma­tion. Another impli­ca­tion is under­stand­ing the attach­ment to the pet.

Lucy was more than “just a dog”. Lucy is intri­cately inter­wo­ven in my mem­o­ries of my daughter’s child­hood. Lucy’s loss also rep­re­sents the loss of this link­age to the past. The third impli­ca­tion is for ther­a­pists to help clients acknowl­edge their loss. This is very­d­if­fi­cult to do if I am afraid your response will be neg­a­tive. As we were mak­ing our deci­sion I began to cry and the kind assis­tants in the office allowed and encour­aged me to do so. I am thank­ful that I have not had the expe­ri­ence from any­one telling me she was just a dog and soI shouldn’t feel this way. We feel the way we feel and being able to explore our pain hon­estly and openly is what ther­apy is all about. Good ther­apy sup­ports and invites healthy cop­ing whether it is cop­ing with the loss of a per­son, a job, or a pet. Each day that passes makesLucy’s loss more bear­able and the pain less acute. I hope that read­ing this blog will enable some­one to sup­port a griev­ing pet owner with more sen­si­tiv­ity. There are mil­lions of us out there count­ing on it!


Patri­cia Myers is a coun­selor, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor, and a doc­toral student.

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2 Responses to Counsellor considers the loss of her own pet

  1. What a great resource!

  2. Thanks, this was really a fan­tas­tic read. So when is your next post com­ing? I can’t wait :)

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