Freelance Writer
Letting Go: The Pain of Saying Goodbye to Your Best Friend
12.04.08 | No Comments
Category: Animal Activism

As published in Pets! Magazine, 2007

Tina Zlody and Louie Despres spent years keeping their dog Olivia’s Cushings Disease at bay with monthly acupuncture sessions. Heart disease, too, would plague her later in life. Her heart finally took her at 14 years old last year. That prior August, Zlody had to put her cat Tawny Kittaen to sleep because of kidney failure at only nine. A stray in “not the best neighborhood,” Tawny had worked hard to win over Zlody, who had never grown up with cats.

“The day my husband was to leave on a trip,” said Zlody, “was the day we had decided that she needed to not be in pain anymore. He offered to postpone the trip in order to be with me. I explained that she was my cat and that I had to do it alone. I miss her every day. Olivia had a great long life. Tawny had a short, bad life.”

But the death that resonated most deeply, in retrospect, was her first dog, Maggie. Zlody got her after moving out of her parents house and it was the first that was “hers,” and she was Maggie’s. “In so many ways she kept me on the right path,” says Zlody. “I could have done very silly things, but just the idea that I had to be there for her, care for her, made me more responsible. She was with me through relationships, job changes, moves and was the one constant in my life. She was my soul dog. She got sick with pancriatitis and I didn’t see the symptoms in time. Again, it breaks my heart to this day that I had to put her to sleep, and not at our vet.”

The loss is profound, and difficult to recover from for true animal lovers. “We do everything for them,” said Zlody. “and that is a huge emotional investment, so the loss leaves a huge void. They play a role in everyday activities. They are the first thing I deal with when I get up and the last thing at night. I also think that people, if they are dealing with a longterm human illness, have time to hopefully make peace with each other. I had no opportunity to apologize to Maggie for missing her symptoms and to thank her for all she had done for me.”

It is love in the absence of words that makes it transcend language. It is the lack of a language that makes it hard to explain and hard to say goodbye. It is the way pets are woven into the very fabric of our lives that make it feel that the world is unraveling when they go.

Jeannie Hebert of Shrewsbury has lost many animal companions in her years of adopting dogs and cats. Within the past year, she said goodbye to her 21 year old cat Louie, and more recently, her white German shepherd Kirby. “To me, it is as if I have lost a child,” she said. “Kirby was my constant companion and the source of much joy to me. During the span of those years [with him] my life changed drastically. My marriage broke up, I changed careers, but Kirby was there for me each and every day. Even when those I believed to be my most trusted friends disappeared, he was there with love and compassion….when he passed I was crushed. He seemed invincible to me.”

They are our rocks. So how can you cope when that rock is gone?

Judith N. Stone, LICSW and grief counselor with more than 25 years experience, works with Vescone, a 24-hour veterinary emergency and specialty center that offers 24 hour coverage, in leading its free pet loss support group. “People can call Vescone 24/7 for support and information about pet loss,” said Stone. “They can come once or as many times as they would like.”

Stone explains that many have such a difficult – sometimes seemingly impossible – time coping with the death of their pet for a variety of reasons. “First and foremost,” she said, “pets tend to provide unconditional, uncomplicated love and devotion to their owners. Their needs are simpler and they provide true and steady companionship and comfort, something that can be harder to find in human relationships.” They also enhance human relationships, she reminds us. Couples and families refer to and think of pets as members. For single people, they are family.

“There is more and more evidence of a wide range of emotinal experience in animals. I think we as humans get great satisfaction from experiencing that emotion and mutuality with another species. For all of these reasons and more, the death of an animal companion means the breaking of a powerful bond, the rupturing of an attachment, and it can therefore be devastating.”

There are lots of ways to help people cope with this devastation, explains Stone. It’s important to validate the range of feelings, which include pain, sadness, confusion, fear, anger, emptiness, loneliness and disbelief. Sometimes it can be hard to find this empathy, and it is a critical part of support. It is particularly helpful in a group setting, said Stone, because members share stories, grief and their own ways of coping. Almost always, Stone finds, people who come to the support group have experienced a lack of empathy from others – others who lack the understanding of the animal-human bond.

As with losing a human, at first, many cannot grasp the reality of the death. “When Kirby passed,” said Hebert, “I literally took to my bed. I would collapse in a sea of tears at just the mention of him.” It’s important to allow space to those who need to grieve. In Stone’s group, there is discussion about the stages of the grief process.

“Crying, thinking a great deal about their companion, talking, even ‘talking to’ the lost loved one,” said Stone, “keeping a toy, blanket or other object that reminds them of their pet for a time can all be useful ways to move through grief.”

For Hebert, part of letting go meant giving Kirby a proper burial, just she had done for her beloved Hannah, who died years earlier of the same type of cancer, and others before them. She had already picked out a plot at Angel View Cemetery in Middleboro, which took care of the arrangements. “They were so kind and understanding,” said Hebert. “It was exactly the same as planning a funeral for a human. To me, Kirby was as important to me as any other human in my life. Much more than some, really.” Kirby’s family and friends gathered around him to say goodbye, and be there for support.

Hebert will most likely adopt another pet, eventually, especially to fill the void and give a companion to Pia, Kirby’s best buddy. But Stone reminds us that it’s usually a good idea to wait for some time so the person is emotionally ready to accept another pet into their home and heart. It’s advisable, too, that the new pet not look like the one that has passed.

“I think there is a great need for grief counseling,” said Stone, “but often people have a hard time asking for help or don’t know that resources are available. Our culture doesn’t offer a lot of support for grief. Working with people who are grieving is a powerful, fulfilling experience for the counselor. It gets down to the bedrock of human experience. It can allow for a special kind of openness and healing that is like no other.”

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