In the old days, I had been known to point at dogs in the street and sputter callously, “That is why zoos exist. Animals should be behind bars.”
That was before ZsaZsa, our French bulldog, entered my life. When I told my cousin, Kate, that we were about to get a puppy, she effused, “The dog will make you a better person. You will love her.” Wiser words never were spoken. Indeed, that little pup taught me, among so many other things, how to play, how to be patient, and how to be in the moment. In short order, little ZZ created a family from my husband and me, and shared all the happy and not-so-happy moments with equal spirit, love, and loyalty.
Humbled, I have a new, zealous appreciation for the role our pets play in our lives and how — when we lose them — we can be as devastated as if we had lost a child. I’ve long preached how important condolences are, when someone loses a loved one. Clients often ask how best to do this, especially when they might not have known the deceased, who might have been a colleague’s spouse, parent, child. Sadly, much of the Western world is a death-denying culture. We typically are given three days to grieve the loss of a family member, and then we are supposed to return to our jobs, performing as effectively as ever. The idea seems to be to suck it up and move right along, almost as if a life-altering event had never occurred.
Fortunately for our humanity, we slowly are becoming more aware of the toll losing a loved one takes, and necessarily more empathetic in our dealings with the bereaved. It’s time to appreciate how devastating the loss of a pet can be, and the effect that loss can have on our outlook, our emotions, our performance. We need to reach out to those around us, just as we would were the loss a human one.
Reverend Betsy Salunek, a hospital chaplain and grief counselor, allows that “I was one of those people who laughed at people who lost animals and were desolate…until I had my own dog.” Now she realizes that “We go through the same stages of grief when we lose a pet, and humans often have the same unfinished business with pets as humans, feeling that ‘I could have done more… I was not prepared to lose my best friend.'”
Jaycee Barrett, an investment executive turned dog trainer who recently lost her beagle, Henry, said she wondered what would fill the gaps in her life when Henry died. “For many people, our relationship with animals helps define us, and, when co-workers recognize this importance, it creates a unique, respectful, and memorable connection.”
Ariana Andrade, a physician at Johns Hopkins Medical Center, admits that losing her dog Bella made focusing at work tough. “It was also very hard to come home at the end of the day and not find her there,” she said. “I avoided coming home until I knew my husband was already home, because I just could not bear being there by myself without Bella.”
Andrade cautioned the well-intentioned against suggesting a replacement as part of efforts to reach out. “People often asked me when I was getting another dog. That made me feel worse and wonder whether, if a human being had died instead of a dog, they would have asked me ‘when are you getting another son, or husband, or friend?.'” Barrett agrees with those sentiments, and adds that “When Henry died, personalized sentiments in handwritten letters, a plant to nurture in memory of the loss, a donation to a dog park, a shelter, or a particular pet illness gave me great comfort.”
Ron Hunter, yet another Wall Street executive turned dog trainer, recommends www.RainbowBridge as a means to express condolence, especially when we are well-intentioned yet clueless. “If you really can’t connect, it’s better to keep your mouth shut because you know you will say the wrong thing. Fortunately, there are more pet condolence cards available now, as a last resort.” Our pets enrich our lives, and, when they are taken from us, we suffer. Let us be mindful of this and reach out with compassion to those who have lost a beloved animal, giving them time and space for adequate grieving, while letting them know that we understand. (Editing by Paul Casciato)