Remembering Max – grieving the loss of a pet

The process is no different than mourning the death of a human being.

311_dog photo (photo credit: MCT)
311_dog photo
(photo credit: MCT)
One of my clients recently told me that her family pet dog, Max, had passed away. She stated that Max was a mixed breed, had been quite ill, and he was very old. Upon the advice of the veterinarian, Max was put to sleep.
She was surprised by her own reaction to the loss of her dog. She simply could not get Max out of her mind. She went on to state that Max had been a member of the household for over nine years. He often was the center of attention since he was a very playful pet and her husband and children liked to play with him all of the time. “Max was always in the kitchen when I prepared meals, especially Shabbat meals.
What concerns me is how badly my husband and I have been affected by his death. I just keep on having associations to things that remind me of him. Every time I go into the kitchen, I think I hear his paws. When I get up in the middle of the night, I still am afraid that I will step on him since he often slept near our bed. I keep on expecting to hear him scratch on the front door. My husband misses his evening walks with Max, which he would call his “exercise.” I feel so guilty for being so upset when there are so many more serious things to be upset about.”
My first response was to tell this woman that she had nothing at all to apologize concerning her grief about losing her pet. Many pet owners are indeed shocked by the depth of grief they feel after the loss of a pet. After all, pets live relatively short lives. We simply are not prepared for their death, and because of the attachment that we humans make to these lovely creatures, and I would add, they make to us, their illness or death can affect some people as much the death of a relative or friend.
UNCONSCIOUSLY, a pet represents many things to each pet owner. It may represent a child or even wished for pregnancy for a childless couple. It may also represent the child that left home or is in the process of leaving home. A pet may represent the wish for a sibling for an only child or the object of nurture for someone who is alone but wants to feel and express caring.
It may reflect the ideal mate or parent, ever faithful, patient and welcoming, loving us unconditionally. It can symbolize a playmate and a companion or even the connection to someone else who shared the joy of owning the pet, but is no longer at home. I have seen this many times in the case of a loss of a family member, and the pet becomes an extended way for the surviving family member(s) to hold on to the memory of the lost person.
When a pet dies, we expect that our pain will be acknowledged, even if it is not shared, by our relatives, friends and colleagues. Disappointingly, the importance of its loss may not be appreciated by other people. Realize that you do not need anyone else’s approval to mourn the loss of your pet, nor must you justify your feelings to anyone. Nevertheless, the process of grieving for a pet is no different than mourning the death of a human being. Typical emotions that reflect the grieving process include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. The time frame for this grieving process lies in the value that is placed on your pet by your family and the readiness to allow oneself to grieve.
My advice is always to give yourself permission to feel the pain, talk about the loss with family, friends, your veterinarian and each other, recalling and sharing funny and other significant personal accounts of things and times you spent with your pet. This telling process helps to validate and to let go and mourn the loss of your pet.
One final note, your life was and will continue to be brighter because of the time that you shared with your pet. Cherish those memories.
Photos of the pet do help. Most people do eventually resolve their grief and feel better.
However, for some, the loss of a pet can trigger other unresolved conflicts or represent the tip of the iceberg for some other issue that you are currently going through. When this happens, don’t hesitate to seek professional advice from a trained therapist.
The writer is a marital, child and adult psychotherapist practicing in both Jerusalem and Ra’anana.