Dealing with the loss of an animal companion
by Stuart Kaplowitz
For weeks, Mikhail struggled to breathe. The vet said there was nothing we could do. He’d lived a long life. Even so, coming home after Thanksgiving to find the 16-year-old cat had passed was devastating. My son Austin, then 7, took it especially hard. Mikhail was a member of our family and we all experienced grief over his death in different ways.
We wrestled with self-anger — “we should have been there for him” — bargaining — “can’t we just get a little more time with Mikhail?” — and denial. The death of a pet can have an impact on you. Feeling loss is a tribute to the animal, and validation of your love and concern for your pet.
Many may not initially believe this, or are uncomfortable with sharing these feelings. Often, people who see me for counseling, struggling with the recent loss of a pet, will begin by divulging something less meaningful or painful. It’s as if they feel embarrassed and guilty for having so much pain for a non-human entity. Only after they feel at ease do they bring up the pet’s death.
One gentleman I saw last year said he wanted to talk about issues involving his mother. Since these problems were decades-old, I delved deeper. I found the recent death of his dog, run-over by a car, seemed to be causing him all kinds of pain, some sadness and much anger.
He didn’t know how to be sad over the loss of a pet and was uncomfortable with his tears. Coming full circle, the dog’s death tapped into unresolved pain over the loss of his father years earlier.
Men, especially in Western cultures, are socialized to internalize feelings. So as psychotherapist Wallace Sife explains in his book, “The Loss of a Pet,” they’re inclined to hide their grief when a dog or cat dies. Men and women also fall prey to a pervasive notion that grieving a pet’s death somehow devalues the importance of human relationships.
But we’re perfectly capable of loving people and animals simultaneously. Since the loss of either can be significant, we certainly shouldn’t be ashamed of our grief. Instead of denying their feelings, I encourage clients to accept and express them because it’s necessary for them to heal. And I remind them, healing takes time.
It was the better part of a year before my son, Austin, and his brother, Evan, then 4, began asking for another pet. Whether we were just passing by the local pet store or watching something on TV that featured a cat, the months after our loss were filled with some poignant reminders about Mikhail’s life.
Our family shared wonderful memories — recalling how Mikhail wouldn’t let anythingor anyone get in his way when he was getting attention. Talking about him still puts a smile on our faces. We keep his remains in an urn on a bookshelf as a reminder he’s still with us — in our heads and our hearts.B
Stuart Kaplowitz is a highly rated licensed marriage and family therapist in Chino, Calif., who works with adults, children and families. In addition to counseling some clients on pet loss, he’s the owner of two cats — Sweet Pea and Mew (short for Mewlissa).