Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Pet Loss: Good-bye Dear Jake

It is good to be back in Michigan!  In December Peter and I  loaded Jake, our 15 yr old Lab/Shepard mix, in  the car and drove to our new winter home: Tucson, AZ.

We were concerned about Jake’s comfort and ability to make the trip, but he tolerated it well and seemed revived soaking up the sun in our new yard.

It was hard to watch him lose the strength to get in the car, the ability to manage stairs, the comfort of being around other animals.  As his senses faded his anxiety escalated.

Our vet helped us assess his  condition and needs.  We had hoped he could make it back to Michigan, but by April we knew it was time to euthanize him.

We have had other pets euthanized–it is never an easy decision.

The reason I decided to write about Jake’s death here is this:  Reactions to the loss of a beloved pet is  as multi-faceted as any other loss.  Everyone is entitled to view their animals, and the loss of them, however they want.   I caution you though to not make assumptions about what that loss is like for others.

Some of the comments people made when Jake died offended me.  Really, really offended me.  Some of them were made by the professionals who were assisting us with the process, some by friends.

Here are some examples:

—Referring to Jake as my “child”.  NO…he was my loved and valued pet.  He did not come close to being in the same category as my child.
–Questioning our decision to euthanize–some thought we waited too long, others thought we were too hasty.  It is not their business, unless their opinion has been requested.
Telling us their personal stories of pet loss (often the re-telling  proved traumatic for the person and they would then need comforting).  In the midst of trying to make the right decision no one needs to have things complicated by a tearful story.

Pet loss, like other grief, is a personal journey.  Let the person take the lead in conversations.  Listen.  Listen well.

We were lucky to have many, many people do just that.  Let us guide the conversations.

I especially want to thank Dr. Lee Fike (Tucson) http://www.leefike.com/ : Thank you for your compassion, wisdom, guidance and  patience. Your  method  of euthanizing in stages allowed us the opportunity to see Jake at peace to be able say good-bye in our home, as we listened to music that comforted us. Thanks also to our dear friend Helen Costa (Ann Arbor) who was always just an email away, willing to answer questions and help us explore options. And, many others who said just the right thing, at the right time.

Today we will spread Jake’s ashes in Michigan and celebrate his awesome, sweet spirit.

I am glad he is home.

Posted by Klara Lynn Dannar at 7:44 AM


What caught her eye drawing her to the road that spring day on May 3, 1979?

One would never know. But she never heard the sound of an automobile thundering down the road toward her. In a split second laden with sounds of screeching tires and a dull thud, it was all over.

Alice Mowat Whitney was dead.

The tragic news ricocheted through the hallways and classrooms of Sir James Whitney School for the Deaf in Belleville as teachers and students busied themselves in the day’s routine. Shock and grief gripped them as they found out the details of the fate of their dear pet who had lit up their days with a wag of her black tail and a glance from her warm, friendly eyes.

Donna Fano was a teacher at SJW at the time of the tragedy. She was in her classroom that morning when news of Alice’s death was announced over the school PA system. While she heard the details of the news from another teacher, she recalled that the students from different residences heard of the accident at breakfast time in the main school cafeteria.

A crossbreed of Newfoundland water dog, which originated in ancient times before the Europeans arrived in Canada, and Labrador, Alice first came into the lives of the staff and students at SJW when she was donated to the school by Farley Mowat in 1972. In the following years, she became the school’s live-in mascot dog.

Delving into Alice’s family history, Fano found an interesting lineage that made the SJW mascot even more special.

Alice’s father, Albert, was born in the Newfoundland out port of La Poille, noted Fano.

“He was one of the last of the ancient Newfoundland water dog stock. His mate was Victoria, a mostly Labrador lady; and the pair gave birth to Alice and the rest of the pups in 1971, where she (Alice) was petted by Pierre and Margaret Trudeau during a visit and perhaps would have become their dog if she had not been afflicted with loss of hearing.”

Instead, her brother, Farley Trudeau, went on to live as a member of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s family for several years.

“Another brother travelled across the ocean as the companion of Premier Kosygin of the USSR. A third went to live with Canadian author Scott Symons, and another brother spent his adult life with Dr. Joe McGinnis, author and underwater expert and explorer,” noted Fano.

At the time of her death, Alice had become a familiar and beloved part of the school and was especially dear to all at the school for the deaf because she, too, was deaf.

Fano thought that Alice might have been the only deaf dog in North America to have been owned by a deaf school.

“The deaf students all thought it was so cool to have a deaf pet. Not very often would they be permitted pets in the residences,” recalled Fano. “She was very loving and affectionate, friendly and so agreeable.”

In an article published in The Intelligence in February 1976, a Mrs. Ryer, a counselor with whom Alice lived during the holidays,was noted to have observed:

“She learns more quickly than other dogs who hear,” she said. “Alice understands and obeys sign language to sit down, come here, lie down and let’s go for a walk.”

Alice was buried in Hodgson Woods located behind the present Sagonaska School.

“Students and staff grieved at the death of their school pet. The now-deceased Dr. J. Demeza gave the tribute at the dog’s funeral at the woods then the students and staff lined up to sprinkle soil on the grave,” recalled Fano.

A new tombstone was unveiled at the site of Alice’s grave on Oct. 20, 2009 at SJW.

“The first tombstone, made of cement, was made by Bruce Gomes, a student in the vocational shop in 1979 and was set up on Alice’s grave.” said Fano. “The tombstone lasted almost 20 years before it broke into sections from the weathering and was moved to the school archives and kept there until 2006. The current Manufacturing Technology teacher Norbert Irion had plans to replace the tombstone with a metal cage housing a slab of marble with sandblasted lettering on it but the school birthday committee decided to replace it with granite for more durability.”

The project, she noted, was made possible with support from the OSD/SJW Alumni Association, Belleville Association for the Deaf, SJW Student Parliament, Bert ‘N Ernie’s Café (staff lounge snack bar), and SJW students and staff. The ceremonial event was the highlight of the 139th birthday anniversary celebrations of the Sir James Whitney School for the Deaf.

Pet-Owner Bereavement Requires Passage of Time

by Mirko Petricevic/Record staff
August 05, 2010

WATERLOO — Until late last year Dr. Jennifer Heick spent her lunches strolling along Waterloo trails with a couple of her best friends – a malemute named Meesha and retriever mutt called Bear. Then cancer crept into their lives and separated the threesome. To spare her a prolonged and painful death, Meesha was euthanized around Christmas time. In April, Bear was also diagnosed with cancer and suffered the same fate.

“You really didn’t have time to finish grieving the first one,” said Heick, a Waterloo chiropractor. “They’re part of your life every day . . . and then they’re not there.” Gone were the long walks and encounters that regularly brought a smile to her face. “You just don’t have that wagging tail as you walk in the door,” she said. Heick talked about her loss with some of her patients. One of them, Brien Thurston, listened longer than most. As they talked over several lunches he never told her to “just get over it.” Instead, Heick said, Thurston gave her permission to still feel sad. A longtime chaplain and counselor, Thurston knew the importance of acknowledging Heick’s grief. Besides, he knew how she felt. Thurston’s all-time favorite cat, Tobias, was also euthanized in April.

“He was the most wonderful little barn cat you ever saw in your life,” Thurston recalled. Soon after, he realized he was experiencing some of the same grief symptoms he saw in many of his clients. “You can’t stifle these things,” Thurston said. He started to think that he’s probably not the only person who ever despaired over the death of a pet. Elderly widows and widowers whose pets die can undergo tremendous amounts of grief, Thurston noted.

But many people underestimate the value of pets, so they don’t acknowledge the grief some pet owners experience by the death of a pet, he said. “People need to see . . . that this grief can go on for a long time,” Thurston said. “It’s not just a simple matter of going and buying a new canary.” A 2007 an Ipsos-Reid poll suggested 35 per cent of Canadian households were home to a dog and about 38 per cent households included a cat. Eventually, all of them die. And for most pet owners, the time will come when they’re going to have to decide on euthanizing the pet that, for many of them, has become a part of the family.

The region is home to many grief counselors. But, Thurston said, few specialize in giving emotional support to bereaved pet owners. So he pounced on the problem like a dog on a new bone. Enter Dr. Robert Close, a veterinarian for more than 30 years who opened a new practice in Kitchener about a year ago. After seeing one of Close’s flyers this spring, Thurston called Close and talked about the depth of grief some people feel after losing a pet. As a longtime veterinarian who has euthanized thousands of patients, Close knew the emotional toll each case takes on pet owners – and on veterinarians. “When I was younger I always thought it might be easier, that you would get used to it (euthanizing animals),” Close said. “But you don’t. “Honestly, sometimes I think my heart is going to shatter into a thousand pieces,” he said. But Close said he knows he’s “doing the right thing” by sparing his patients great pain before they die.

So Close and Thurston developed a support program they feel would help bereaved pet owners, veterinarians and others who care for animals. In addition to addressing a person’s grief over the death of a pet, the program addresses the grief people experience in making decisions about euthanasia and, eventually, obtaining another pet. Thurston plans to start delivering the first classes next week . Bonnie Deekon, executive director of the Cambridge & District Humane society, welcomes the thought of having specific programs, or counselors, available for bereaved pet owners.

The society’s office installed a bulletin board to commemorate pets that have been euthanized. It’s a place where some pet owners linger for a long time. “They can stand in front of the board and look at it for half an hour,” Deekon said. “We never ever turn people away.” Deekon said she would also like to be able to refer some of her staff members who, from time to time, feel the emotional weight of euthanizing animals at the shelter. Kathy Innocente, fundraising and community development manager at the Kitchener-Waterloo Humane Society, said she occasionally steers bereaved pet owners to humane society volunteers who work at local funeral homes. But she doesn’t know of anyone in the region who specializes in supporting bereaved pet owners. “It would be a very nice thing for us to offer people,” she said, noting that the society hasn’t yet checked into Thurston or his program, so it isn’t referring clients to him at this point.

Leslie Josling, executive director of K-W Counselling Services, said people can get very attached to their pets. “When there’s a loss, that can be a significant trauma,” she said. But if someone is seeking therapy for complex grief over the loss of a pet, there are probably other underlying issues, she added. There might be some unique issues therapists might need to keep in mind when supporting someone with pet bereavement, she said. But any trained therapist should be able to support bereaved pet owners, Josling said. “It seems that you would be able to generalize what you know about loss and grief and death and dying . . . and help somebody through bereavement when it comes to a pet,” she said.

THE LEGACY OF BEEZER AND BOOMER: Lessons on Living and Dying

“What a fabulous, heartfelt and enjoyable read (assuming you don’t mind some crying). Doug adeptly describes his transition from skillful attorney, who takes pride in controlling the world around him, to a soul-searching student who, under the tutelage of his beloved four-legged mentors, strives to live in the moment. In the genre of ‘dog vignettes,’ it’s mighty refreshing to read a journey of feelings rather than simply a comical description of life with a dog.” ~ Dr. Nancy Kay, author of Speaking for Spot.

Nearly 80 percent of companion animal owners consider their pets as family members. Most of them will outlive their “children” and will face the difficult journey of caring for and saying goodbye to them.

Grief after a loved one passes, including a pet, is common and many resources exist to help. Just as common but less well-known is the anticipatory grief many individuals feel before their pet passes, which can cause fear, guilt, hopelessness, anger, denial, and depression.

PictureThe Legacy of Beezer and Boomer: Lessons on Living and Dying from My Canine Brothers by Doug Koktavy explores the author’s overwhelming anticipatory grief when his beloved sibling Labradors, first one and then the other, were diagnosed with terminal illnesses. He comments, “This harrowing, sometimes humorous, and ultimately enlightening journey describes how I ultimately found peace, strength, and acceptance by learning to listen to my dogs.” He adds, “If I can learn this, anyone can.”

All told, this first-place recipient of the CIPA Evvy Book Award in the Self-Help category illustrates how one man – and by extension the rest of us – can earn “The Daily Point” and learn to stay present, cope with emotions, and ultimately find peace even in the most difficult situations.

Doug Koktavy is a self-employed creditor’s attorney in Denver, Colorado, who has played ice hockey for years and competed in triathlons. He enjoys volunteering for pet organizations, biking, running, and taking walks with his new Labrador, Dory.

Posted by JoAnn Turnbull at May 4, 2010 9:26 a.m.
Category: Pets & People

To Love Again

(Author unknown)

Oh what unhappy twist of fate
Has brought you homeless to my gate,
The gate where once another stood
To beg for shelter warmth and food?

For from that day I ceased to be
The master of my destiny,
While she, with purr and velvet paw
Became within my house the law.

She scratched the furniture and shed
And claimed the middle of my bed,
She ruled in arrogance and pride
And broke my heart the day she died.

So if you really think, oh cat
I’d willingly relive all that,
Because you come forlorn and thin
Well don’t just stand there – come on in!


Last update: March 10, 2010 – 3:18 PM

Amy Dickinson

Dear Amy:

I euthanized my beloved cat less than a week ago.

Aside from the grief of losing my pet of 15 years, I feel a tremendous guilt at having made the decision to have her put to sleep.

She was 17 or 18 years old (I got her from a shelter) and was recently diagnosed with an illness that was affecting her ability to breathe. Because of additional age-related, underlying health conditions, we were not able to use the medicine that was most likely to help her.

After several days of agonizing over whether she was suffering, I made an appointment to have her euthanized.

Ever since she died, I have been reliving that conversation and wishing I had not made the call — or wishing that when it came time for the actual procedure that I had said, “No, wait, let’s try another medicine. Let’s do anything to help her live longer.”

Instead, I made the decision to kill a sweet animal that had done nothing but love me for 15 years. I am absolutely beside myself with guilt.

The vet said the illness would cause a horrible natural death, but I feel like I ended her life prematurely, whether by a few weeks or a month. I feel like I deprived her of my love when she needed it most. I feel like I “bailed” on her. Amy, how do I forgive myself? I loved my cat dearly and miss her more than anything.


Amy says: Those of us who love our companion animals have to love them all the way — and that means we have to be responsible stewards all the way to the end of their lives.

Trying to extend the life of a pet with painful or invasive medical treatment can be an act of human selfishness. Any vet will tell you that when it comes time to euthanize an animal, many people delay beyond the point of mercy, revealing their inability to let go.

Many animal lovers face guilt along with their loss; talking with others will help you to face the inevitability of your choice. Your vet’s office should help you connect with a bereavement group.

Honor your memory of this important animal and, when you are ready, visit your local shelter to offer another cat the joy of a nice, long and loving life with you.

Reader’s Response

Dear Full of Regret,

I’m in the same boat. I put down my cat of 16 years down on New Year’s Eve. I’m 99% sure it was the right thing to do but still feel 75% guilt over it. Though the first month I was convinced she wasn’t sick and could live another 15 years. Now I’m back in reality, knowing I gave her a great life where we both loved each other a lot, and I did the right thing. Time will likely heal this wound for you.

posted by Mellers on Mar 10, 10 at 6:25 pm |


Once they just got buried in the back garden. Now there are animal coffins and even helplines for bereaved owners… By Heidi Scrimgeour   Saturday, 26 June 2010 *

When Christina McDermott was 11 years old, she had a diabetic hamster called Soda, who died. “My little brother built her a mausoleum out of chipboard,” she recalls. “Unfortunately, it wasn’t the sturdiest structure in the world, and one of the neighbourhood cats dug Soda up and ran off with her carcass. My mother was not best pleased.” Perhaps the growth of the UK pet bereavement industry is in part due to the structural integrity (or lack thereof) of the burial homes we gave our childhood pets.

There’s little need for makeshift mausoleums with the advent of “poffins” – custom-made pet coffins available in sizes ranging from “hamster/budgie” to “oversize dog”. Things have certainly changed since the days when the death of a pet was a rite of passage that warranted little more than a small hole in the back garden with a tombstone made of lollipop sticks and a daisy chain for a funeral wreath. The pet bereavement business is booming, and caters for everything from animal funerals (cremation or burial) to the transformation of ashes into memorial jewellery, and counselling for bereaved pet owners.

That said, “On the death of your dog” still isn’t a section you’re likely to find in your local card shop. Not surprising, perhaps, except that the growth of the pet bereavement industry suggests that the death of a pet can be a profound loss, and that the resulting grief can often be met with a lack of sympathy. I write this as someone not known for her devotion to the animal kingdom. I accidentally starved my own guinea pig to death (my dad was right; this will happen if you don’t feed them) and at the tender age of three I conducted a legendary but ill-fated experiment on my brother’s terrapin involving something to do with velocity and a brick wall.

So it was a shock to find myself recently rendered incoherent by the death of a dog. Why the woe? After all, she was just a dog. Well, no actually. It turns out she was much more than just a dog. Many dog owners admit that their pooch is practically an extra child in the family, sometimes as badly behaved as the naughtiest toddler but no less adored. From James Herriot to Gerald Durrell via Lassie and Black Beauty, it’s well-documented that the faithfulness of animals – and dogs especially – earns them a unique place within families, and one that holds deep, lasting significance.

It follows that the loss of such an animal might therefore have serious repercussions. Nevertheless, I didn’t expect to cry when my dog-in-law died. A Weimaraner (a German hunting dog to the uninitiated), Cassie was a charming eccentric. She was eight weeks old when she came to join my husband’s family and eight years old when she died. This was a dog whose presence, it must be said, sometimes invoked frustration above affection. There was nothing she could not eat. She had sampled everything from designer prescription sunglasses (twice) to a dozen eggs (shells and box included).

But the discovery of an aggressive, inoperable tumour and the suddenness of Cassie’s death brought to light the existence of a real and profound relationship between that dog and I, one which I had largely failed to notice while she was still alive. Cassie was a faithful witness to many chapters of our family life. Walking the dogs in the woods behind my in-laws’ house was the modern equivalent of courting, and the first year I visited at Christmas, keen to impress, I went armed with gift-wrapped doggy treats.

The first time we took our newborn son to meet the family, the master of the house took the baby’s blanket outside for inspection by the dogs. The theory was that the dogs would respect and recognise the baby’s smell and thus accept this tiny foreigner into the fold. The gesture was as practical as it was touching, not least because that baby’s first word was later a gleeful cry of “boggies!”, uttered upon sight of his canine friends.

Though the dogs were so large and the boy was so small as to warrant much reminding that “dogs are not for riding”, they none the less formed a deep and drooling mutual love affair. More recently, seeking solace with my in-laws at a difficult juncture in our lives, walking Cassie was a daily ritual, an incantation, more for our benefit than hers. I was grateful for her exuberant distraction; it’s impossible to wallow with two energetic gun dogs urging you to oblige them with a run across the fields. Cassie’s untimely end served to illuminate the place she had occupied in our family’s story, more poignant because it was only recognised when it was too late to be rewarded.

That’s a sentiment shared by Anna Webb, who was devastated by the death of her dog, Minnie. Anna rescued Minnie from a dogs’ home but felt she had betrayed her by not being there when she died. “Minnie was there for me as a grounding aspect to my life. Losing her made me realise how precious life is and that you shouldn’t take it for granted,” she says. Eve Menezes Cunningham also felt guilty when her cat Lou died following a seizure. “I was completely unprepared for losing her,” she says. “I held her while they put her down and when I got home I howled.”

Eve’s previous encounters with death did little to help make sense of what she felt. “I’ve been to loads of funerals and have lost a lot of people. But Lou was my pet cat. I loved her unconditionally. She’d never let me down and I felt I wasn’t able to do enough for her. It broke my heart that I couldn’t make it all right for her.” Eve was surprised by the intensity of her loss. “I remember thinking I could never have kids or get married,” she says. “If the loss of a cat is such a blow, how could I cope with human loss?” Though Eve’s feelings were uncharacteristically irrational and changed as her grief subsided, her experience is not unusual. Susie Richardson found the death of her cat a bewildering experience. “If I’m honest it was quite frightening,” she says. “I wasn’t prepared for the intensity of my emotions. I thought I was going mad.”

Like Eve and Anna, Susie blamed herself. “I was so hard on myself. The what-ifs haunted me,” she admits. Susie feels she might have coped better if she’d known her feelings were normal, and now volunteers with a support service for bereaved pet owners in the hope of helping others cope. The pet bereavement Support Service (bluecross.org.uk/web/site/AboutUs/PetBereavement) provides free emotional support to those suffering the loss of a pet. Run by the Blue Cross in conjunction with the Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS), the service is staffed by volunteers and funded by public donations. Use of the service has grown consistently, with the number of people calling the helpline doubling in recent years. Last year, nearly 5,000 people rang the helpline and this year’s figures are already up by 200 calls compared with the same time last year. While the majority of callers are women, there is a steady increase in the number of men using the service. The Blue Cross website also allows bereaved pet owners to create a page in memory of their pet. So far this year, over 5,500 pages have been created, and during August, over 6,000 people visited those pages.

Jason Ward is a pet undertaker. His parents John and Terri Ward started their family-run business (petfuneralservices.co.uk), based in Wales, 19 years ago, and continue to provide services to bereaved pet owners. Their pet ambulances have covered 70,000 miles in the past year, collecting deceased pets and returning ashes. The business operates around the clock and largely outside of conventional business hours. But far from being an oddity, the services that Jason provides are fast becoming the norm for bereaved pet owners. He attributes this in part to the fact that people move house more frequently, making burying animals in the garden impractical. He is regularly asked to exhume and cremate pets whose remains have been disturbed following a house move or extension build.

He also connects the growth of the pet bereavement industry to the growing importance placed on pets in an increasingly fractured society. If you listen to Jason, himself a devoted dog-lover with a heartbreaking pet-loss story of his own, you’d believe that unconditional love is only to be found on four legs. Jason likens the death of a pet to the loss of a child. He makes a compelling case. “Some people compartmentalise the relationship they have with their pets,” he says. “But there’s always a mother figure – not necessarily a mum or even a female – but someone in the family for whom the bond with a pet goes deeper.” For them, the quotients of grief are akin to those of a bereaved parent, because the intensity of the bond and the nature of the relationship with the animal are as close to parent and child as you can get.

That’s not to say they equate the life of an animal with that of a child, but that the fibres that bind some people to their animals seem made of the same stuff that binds a parent to its child. That’s never truer than when a person finds their pet a reliable constant at a time when human relationships fail. Roz Leach rescued her cat, Amy, from the Cats Protection League and had her for 17 years. “One common thread that runs through many a cat lover’s history is all that you experience together – divorces, deaths, illnesses, you name it. None of this means much to the cat but it does to the human,” she says. When Roz left her marital home, Amy was a source of comfort and security amid uncertainty. In Jason’s experience, the most even-minded and rational pet owners are the ones hit hardest by their grief, precisely because they are unprepared for it.

“You’d be surprised at the reactions we see, everything from shock to people literally collapsing under the weight of their emotions. Grief is no respecter of class or any social boundary,” he says. “We see all walks of life levelled by their sense of loss.” Jason considers modern society ill-equipped for acknowledging the impact of pet bereavement. “Mention down the pub that your dog died and people change the subject, but if your granny dies they’ll buy you a pint and give you a consolatory slap on the back,” he says. He thinks we play down the pain of losing a pet. Also, many people don’t teach their children that pets die, reducing their capacity to cope when the inevitable happens.

Christina McDermott agrees. She was 23 when the kitten she had been given at the age of 12 died of kidney failure. “He was part of the furniture of my everyday family life,” she says. “I cried my eyes out. It was like a cornerstone of my teenage years had gone.” Losing a childhood pet seems as defining a moment as the first taste of teenage heartbreak. Lynley Oram was 16 when her beagle was killed. “She was like the youngest sibling in the family,” she recalls. “It seemed wrong to get another dog, and I’ve never owned another pet. It’s such a commitment to love something like that. What if it happened again?”

For others, the loss of a pet awakens latent empathies. When Helen Kaut-White’s cat vanished, she was devastated by not knowing what had happened to him. For closure, she buried the cat’s brush in the garden at her granny’s suggestion. “I was surprised by her understanding,” she says. “She’s not a cat person but she told me how hard it was for her family when her brother disappeared during the Second World War.”

Carrie Dunn was terrified of dogs for almost 25 years, having been bitten on the face as a child. She was understandably anxious about meeting her boyfriend’s German shepherd, Conner, but a bond slowly grew, and she was devastated when Conner developed a fatal tumour. “I knew I’d be upset when he died but I didn’t realise how much,” she says. “I couldn’t stop bawling and stayed in bed crying. It felt really wrong to be so upset when he wasn’t actually my dog, but David and the vet both pointed out that of course he was my dog too, because I loved him so much and he loved me.”

Mary Leigh runs a pet clotheswear company, equafleece.co.uk, and the retired greyhound she rescued became its principal model for several years. “Josh didn’t like to be left so he became an integral part of my working life,” she says. “When he died he’d been with me for the best part of eight years – my shadow, my constant companion.” Mary encouraged her children to see the dead dog. “I think that helps normalise the experience of losing a pet,” she says. “The more you can prepare a child for the reality that all things die, the more you’re preparing them for life.”

That’s a sentiment echoed by John Grogan, the American journalist who penned a eulogy for his dog and immortalised him in the book-turned-film Marley & Me. “A person can learn a lot from a dog, even a loopy one like ours,” he wrote. “Marley taught me about living each day with unbridled exuberance and joy, about seizing the moment and following your heart. He taught me to appreciate the simple things – a walk in the woods, a fresh snowfall, a nap in a shaft of winter sunlight. And as he grew old and achy, he taught me about optimism in the face of adversity. Mostly, he taught me about friendship and selflessness and, above all else, unwavering loyalty.”

To contact the Pet Bereavement Support Service call 0800 096 6606 or e-mail pbssmail@bluecross.org.uk. Call 01993 825539 for information about becoming a volunteer

Friend, please don’t mourn for me
I’m still here, though you don’t see.
I’m right by your side each night and day
and within your heart I long to stay.

My body is gone but I’m always near.
I’m everything you feel, see or hear.
My spirit is free, but I’ll never depart
as long as you keep me alive in your heart.

I’ll never wander out of your sight-
I’m the brightest star on a summer night.
I’ll never be beyond your reach-
I’m the warm moist sand when you’re at the beach.

I’m the colorful leaves when fall comes around
and the pure white snow that blankets the ground.
I’m the beautiful flowers of which you’re so fond,
The clear cool water in a quiet pond.

I’m the first bright blossom you’ll see in the spring,
The first warm raindrop that April will bring.
I’m the first ray of light when the sun starts to shine,
and you’ll see that the face in the moon is mine.

When you start thinking there’s no one to love you,
you can talk to me through the Lord above you.
I’ll whisper my answer through the leaves on the trees,
and you’ll feel my presence in the soft summer breeze.

I’m the hot salty tears that flow when you weep
and the beautiful dreams that come while you sleep.
I’m the smile you see on a baby’s face.
Just look for me, friend, I’m everyplace!

Author unknown

Carlos Sluzki’s cat died a while ago now, but he still sometimes visits. Now more of a shadow cat, the former pet seems to lurk at the edges of Sluzki’s vision, as a misinterpreted movement amid the everyday chaos of domestic life. All the same, the shadow cat is beginning to slink away and Sluzki notes that as the grief fades his erstwhile friend is erasing himself from the world of the present and receding into the bittersweet world of the memories of the loved ones. The dead stay with us, that much is clear. They remain in our hearts and minds, of course, but for many people they also linger in our senses as sights, sounds, smells, touches or presences.

Grief hallucinations are a normal reaction to bereavement but are rarely discussed, because people fear they might be considered insane or mentally destabilized by their loss. As a society we tend to associate hallucinations with things like drugs and mental illness, but we now know that hallucinations are common in sober healthy people and that they are more likely during times of stress. A Common Hallucination Mourning seems to be a time when hallucinations are particularly common, to the point where feeling the presence of the deceased is the norm rather than the exception. One study, by the researcher Agneta Grimby at the University of Goteborg, found that over 80 percent of elderly people experience hallucinations associated with their dead partner one month after bereavement, as if their perception had yet to catch up with the knowledge of their beloved’s passing.

As a marker of how vivid such visions can seem, almost a third of the people reported that they spoke in response to their experiences. In other words, these weren’t just peripheral illusions: they could evoke the very essence of the deceased. Occasionally, these hallucinations are heart-rending. A 2002 case report by German researchers described how a middle aged woman, grieving her daughter’s death from a heroin overdose, regularly saw the young girl and sometimes heard her say “Mamma, Mamma!” and “It’s so cold.”  Thankfully, these distressing experiences tend to be rare, and most people who experience hallucinations during bereavement find them comforting, as if they were re-connecting with something of the positive from the person’s life. Perhaps this reconnecting is reflected in the fact that the intensity of grief has been found to predict the number of pleasant hallucinations, as has the happiness of the marriage to the person who passed away.

There are hints that the type of grief hallucinations might also differ across cultures. Anthropologists have told us a great deal about how the ceremonies, beliefs and the social rituals of death differ greatly across the world, but we have few clues about how these different approaches affect how people experience the dead after they have gone. Carlos Sluzki, the owner of the shadow cat and across-cultural researcher at George Mason University, suggests that in cultures of non-European origin the distinction between “in here” and “out there” experiences is less strictly defined, and so grief hallucinations may not be considered so personally worrying.

In a recent article, he discussed the case of an elderly Hispanic lady who was frequently “visited” by two of her children who died in adulthood and were a comforting and valued part of her social network. Other case reports have suggested that such hallucinations may be looked on more favorably among the Hopi Indians, or the Mu Ghayeb people from Oman, but little systematic work has been done. And there, our knowledge ends. Despite the fact that hallucinations are one of the most common reactions to loss, they have barely been investigated and we know little more about them. Like sorrow itself, we seem a little uncomfortable with it, unwilling to approach the subject and preferring to dwell on the practicalities… The “Call me if I can do anything,” the “Let’s take your mind off it,” the “Are you looking after yourself?”

Only a minority of people reading this article are likely to experience grief without re-experiencing the dead. We often fall back on the cultural catch all of the “ghost” while the reality is, in many ways, more profound. Our perception is so tuned to their presence that when they are not there to fill that gap, we unconsciously try to mold the world into what we have lived with for so long and so badly long for. Even reality is no match for our love.

Written by Javier Ortega javier@ghosttheory.com

(Author unknown)

We have a secret, you and I
that no one else shall know,
for who but I can see you lie
each night in fire glow?

And who but I can reach my hand
before we go to bed
and feel the living warmth of you
and touch your silken head?

And only I walk woodland paths
and see ahead of me,
your small form racing with the wind
so young again, and free.

And only I can see you swim
in every brook I pass
and when I call, no one but I
can see the bending grass.