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March 20, 2011

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When pets pass away ...

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, albeit unbidden by this writer. When I told my cousin that we were getting 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 for my husband and me, and shared all the 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 the importance of condolences, when someone loses a loved one. Many ask how best to do this, especially when they did not know 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.

Pet bereavement

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 it 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."

Ron Hunter, another executive turned dog trainer, recommends 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.


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