The Aftermath: Dealing with the Grieving Process
By Susan I. Finkelstein
For Marian and Marvin Scheroo, a retired Philadelphia couple whose ten-year-old cat Megan died in July, the sadness just wouldn’t go away. Family and friends were bewildered by their grief. The couple was overreacting; they should be moving along with their lives. This only made things worse. “We’ve had pets before—we even have another cat at home now—but Megan was different, special. She was just the most loving little thing,” Marian recalls, her voice cracking.
Not knowing where to turn, the Scheroos reached out to Jodi Levine, M.S.W., the Matthew J. Ryan Veterinary Hospital’s director of clinical social work. Jodi runs a weekly pet-bereavement support group to help pet owners—both hospital clients and community members—handle the grief that accompanies losing a companion animal or having an older or terminally ill pet. The service educates people about pet loss and the human–animal bond, but more importantly, it provides a means to connect with others experiencing similar losses; often, the support of peers can offer strength and coping mechanisms to help the healing process. There is no charge to attend the sessions, but donations are accepted.
“Members of the group rally and come together,” Jodi says. “There are all sorts of circumstances in which people lose pets: maybe the pet had cancer, or the owner had to have the animal euthanized. All this is extremely difficult. Even harder, though, is dealing with the aftermath, the grief that follows.”
The death of a pet can be more painful than losing a friend or family member. Animals offer unconditional love. They are part of our daily routines, and we come to associate them with times, places, feelings, and life events. The loss can be especially distressing for single people, childless couples, and the elderly. Jodi explains that “losing an animal often brings up memories and pain from past losses,” particularly the death of a spouse, a parent, or any loved one. Grieving pet owners in the Ryan Veterinary Hospital group form special relationships with each other and look to Jodi Levine for advice, leadership, and kindness. “Everyone shares their story—and it helps so much,” says Marian Scheroo. “Feelings of remorse, blame, guilt—all these come up. We are all in such a state, but we support each other. And I just cannot tell you how marvelous Jodi is. She has been wonderful, so caring. I don’t know what we would have done without her.”
Part of the process also involves teaching veterinary students how to counsel clients who have lost animals or have sick pets, and about the human–animal bond. Jodi conducts a seminar on the topic for first-year students, but would like to work with fourth-year students because they will soon be in the public sphere. “Even though they will be caring for animals, they also are caring for the clients. Educating clinicians is key,” says Jodi.
Signs of Grief
People exhibit many signs of grief, but not everyone experiences them all, or in the same ways. A grieving pet owner (or anyone suffering a loss through death) may experience denial, anger, guilt, depression, acceptance, and resolution. The first reaction may be denial that the animal has died. This reaction may occur even before death, when the extent of the animal’s illness or injuries becomes apparent. Often, the more sudden the death, the more difficult the loss is to accept.
Bargaining can be a way for pet owners to “make a deal” with a higher power in hopes that it will save or bring back their pet. An example of this would be: “I promise not to ever yell at Buttercup again if you can save his life.”
Anger and guilt often follow, directed toward people who are normally loved and respected, including family and veterinarians. Those who are grieving may blame others or themselves for not recognizing the illness earlier, not doing something sooner, not being able to afford other types of treatment, or for being careless and allowing the animal to be injured. Guilt is often present in situations where pet owners have opted for euthanasia—although it is a humane act, putting an animal to sleep can result in feelings of guilt.
Sometimes, the bereaved pet owner reaches a point where they experience intense sadness and hopelessness. During this time, sorrow is the primary emotion, and the pet is deeply missed and thought of often. Depression often can ensue, and anyone suffering from grief-related depression should seek professional help.
Eventually, grieving pet owners will come to terms with their feelings and reach an acceptance of the death. Often, looking at photographs or toys of their pet become easier, and the feelings of anguish are replaced by fond memories. Some people are ready at this time to share their lives with another animal.
Although the signs of grief apply whether the loss is of an animal or a human loved one, grieving is a personal process. Some people take longer than others to come to terms with denial, anger, guilt, or depression, and each loss is different. Family and friends should be reassured that sorrow and grief are normal, natural responses to death.
Although healing takes time, attending a pet-bereavement support group—whether just once or on a regular basis—can help. Grief is among the most confusing, frustrating emotions, especially for pet owners, since society generally does not give bereaved pet owners “permission” to grieve openly. These groups can provide a much-needed outlet for overwhelming feelings. Anyone experiencing emotional stress due to the illness or death of a pet who would like more information about the Ryan Veterinary Hospital pet-bereavement support group should call 215.898.4529 or visit our Social Work and Bereavement Services Web site.