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Latest health and behavior news and advice from the veterinarians at Tufts University.

Features October 2017 Issue

Is the Intensity of the Grief Normal?

Managing the bereavement when you lose your dog.

“Platitudes don’t work,” says veterinarian Alicia Karas, referring to the need for feelings to be acknowledged that brings bereaved callers to the Tufts University Pet Loss Hotline. It’s understandable that people use them, she comments. “More often than not, they really don’t know how to respond to grief because there are few things you can say that won’t end up sounding wrong. But uttering phrases like, ‘he had a good life’ or ‘he’s out of pain’ or ‘he’s is in a better place’ falls short of the mark because the person is so severely missing the companionship shared with their dog.”

Dr. Karas should know. She heads up the volunteer team that mans the Pet Loss Hotline, which is comprised of first- and second-year veterinary students who field calls from mourning pet owners across the country who need support.

Losa Browning and Sophie

Mark Allen

The support of coworkers and friends made it easier for Lisa Browning of Alexandria, Virginia, when her beloved Sophie died at the age of 19.

Gaining a greater understanding of the impact of loss and the tough decision-making faced by pet owners who have to contend with life-and-death choices is a plus for the students, who with the input of a mental health counselor and a chaplain are guided to an understanding of the right words and ways to help callers find closure. In that process, the students help some of the hardest cases: those who simply can’t get past their grieving and are wondering why, and others who are grieving in advance, so to speak, despairing over a difficult choice they must make because of their dog’s failing health.

“Our goal, rather than to offer platitudes, is to listen, just listen,” says Dr. Karas. “Being heard in itself can spur healing.”

What is the profile of someone who would call a pet loss hotline?

Anyone is welcome to call Tufts’ Pet Loss Hotline (508-839-7966). But interestingly, those who pick up the phone to get help from a stranger tend not to be in the throes of fresh grief. “Our callers are generally people who lost a pet quite some time ago but their grief is still with them,” says Dr. Karas. “Because there is sometimes a stigma to grieving extensively, they’ve exhausted their ability to talk with those around them who have wearied of hearing about it and providing comfort.”

Others who call have not exhausted their options for opening up but may feel too embarrassed to share the depth and ongoing nature of their emotional pain with close friends or family, worrying in advance that their continued grief will become tedious to those around them and that they will be told to “just get over it.” Their reticence makes intuitive sense. Granted, there is a growing industry of pet condolence cards, memorials, and even funerals, all pointing to an increased understanding of the emotional bonds we have with our pets and how difficult it is to lose them. However, some people may have a limited amount of understanding, and sometimes patience, when it comes to a feeling of loss that goes on beyond what they see as a “normal” period.

Georgia

Letters and flowers from local schoolchildren left off at her Hingham, Massachusetts, home were a healing surprise for Christine Wasson after she had to euthanize her 13-year-old chocolate Labrador, Georgia. Here Georgia is as a younger dog with Ms. Wassons children, Charlie and Jennifer, wearing a red bow tie one Christmas morning.

Dr. Karas relates how one man described his ongoing grief and crying like “Niagara Falls” and said that he had even purchased books about whether or not dogs have souls because he was wondering if he would ever see his pet again. This man, a contractor, was able to express his continued mourning in a way that he might not have felt comfortable with his family, friends, or coworkers, and that alone promoted healing.

It was easier for Lisa Browning of Alexandria, Virginia. She didn’t need to call a hotline because coworkers were quite familiar with her 19-year-old poodle-terrier mix, Sophie, and had even pitched in with some of the accommodations needed for her pet as she aged. Some had even hinted to Ms. Browning that perhaps Sophie’s quality of life was no longer there, that it was time. That helped her make the painful decision. Though she had once imagined her dog passing peacefully in her own bed, she began to dread the thought of not being there for Sophie when her time came, and so she arranged to have a country veterinarian open his office early to euthanize her dog in a quiet setting.

After taking a day off afterwards to regroup, it helped that her coworkers greeted her return to work with kind words and personal condolence cards. It doesn’t mean Ms. Browning never feels sorrowful when it comes to Sophie. But she has been able to put her dog’s life — and death — in proper perspective.

It was a similar story for Christine Wasson. Letters and flowers from local schoolchildren left off at her Hingham, Massachusetts, home were a healing surprise after she had to euthanize her 13-year-old chocolate Labrador, Georgia. Georgia had always been the “queen of the neighborhood,” Ms. Wasson says, maintaining her perch on the front lawn and allowing children and others to come over and pet her. Knowing how much Georgia had meant to so many, and especially the tributes paid by the schoolchildren, helped make closure that much easier.

Put succinctly, having a social network to acknowledge the loss and let you experience it without feeling embarrassed actually facilitates the grieving rather than prolongs it. But is there an amount of time to grieve that’s appropriate?

What constitutes “normal” grieving?

“What we tell callers who can’t understand why they aren’t able to move past their loss is that whatever they’re feeling is appropriate because grief is different for different people,” says Dr. Karas. That is, a feeling isn’t normal or abnormal, and you should never feel funny or guilty about it.

“I have had callers say they grieved more for their dog than for their father,” says Dr. Karas. “It’s difficult because at the same time, some of these same people have friends, family, or a spouse telling them to get over it because ‘he was just a dog.’” Of course, that only serves to stoke the grieving process rather than smooth it out.

What people need to realize, Dr. Karas says, is that “an older dog, in particular, is just like a dependent person. You have this care stress, and you’re busy having to give a lot of extra stuff, cleaning up after them, encouraging them to eat, and all of a sudden that is all gone and not replaced with anything but loss and inactivity.” Even healthy dogs dominate our hearts and minds with all the care involved—feeding, grooming, walking, playing, perusing grocery aisles for toys and treats—and condition us to keep up the good work with their wagging tails, smiles, and exclamatory barking. Once that’s gone, the disruption in routine, in the everyday schedule, leaves a palpable void.

Add to that reality the fact that “there is probably no dog who isn’t happy to see you when you come home while the rest of your humans continue eating, working, or playing video games when greeting you,” says Dr. Karas. In other words, the joy is pretty unalloyed. She adds, “we also, I think, are in emotionally labile times now with everyone bombarded with social media, and this keeps us all in a heightened state of arousal that makes the calming stability of pets even more important than ever, with many of them taking on the role of a therapy dog even if that is not their official role.”

Of course, the emotional grounding a dog provides is only ramped up for individuals who do not have the social support from humans that they need. For them, their pet’s passing is the loss of what may have been their greatest source of comfort, Dr. Karas explains. Grief may become prolonged when an individual’s isolation is no longer mitigated by his or her dog’s reassuring presence.

That’s largely why the hotline is there — for people who feel they have no one to talk to about their grief, in addition to those who have “worn out” the compassion of their loved ones, or are afraid they will. “There is emotional processing going on through retelling the story,” Dr. Karas says. It’s okay to have to talk about it more than once. Online forums also provide an outlet for people who need to talk about their dog’s death but cannot, for whatever reason, turn to people in their own social circle.

For those who have trouble moving on even after many repeated conversations, Dr. Karas typically recommends creating a shrine or memorial of sorts, using a dog’s photograph and collar and maybe ashes. Sometimes a ceremony, just as for departed human loved ones, puts a punctuation mark on the whole experience, gives it a coda that finally allows release.

But when she finds a client or caller who seems unable to leave behind their intense grief after a long time, perhaps finding it hard to even eat or sleep, she may recommend seeking professional counseling. “If you get violently ill, you go to the ER or a doctor. If you are having prolonged and profound grief that’s getting in the way of your life, that’s also cause for to you reach out to a professional,” Dr. Karas says.

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