A Tale of Grief

A "Causes and Cures" Column
January 2000

Last Saturday, my husband, Bill, and I suffered a terrible, tragic loss. We experienced the death of one of our bottle-fed marmosets. As many of you may know, we have a non-profit foundation dedicated to the captive conservation of marmosets and tamarins. These are little South American monkeys that often find their way into the pet trade, where they certainly don't belong. We take in unwanted pet marmosets (they often become aggressive and bite family members) and work with several zoos, as well. While we try to allow the monkey families to raise their own offspring, on occasion it is necessary for me to bottle-raise an infant that is either ill, not getting enough milk from its mother or if there are too many babies. Last fall, I raised a little marmoset, an endangered species, because the mother had no milk. This little monkey, a marmoset named Autumn, was literally with me 24/7. I fed her every two hours around the clock for the first several weeks of her life. I have raised many baby monkeys and successfully reintroduced them to family groups, but for many reasons, my husband and I fell very hard for this little one. We knew that she was destined for our breeding program, but we planned on letting her be OUR family member for her first two years, socializing her to other marmosets, but allowing her to live with us.

Unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be. She was four months old when she developed an acute infection from a seemingly innocuous bite from an older tamarin. She died after a very brief illness. And that brings me to the point of this column. I have never felt so sad and heartbroken over the loss of an animal as I have with her death. For four months, she had been our entire world. She traveled with us everywhere and she was our constant companion. When she died so suddenly, my grief and sorrow just incapacitated and overtook me. Many people (mostly folks that don't own pets) just don't understand how profoundly grief over the loss of a pet can affect a person or family. People that don't own pets or even people with pets who aren't very emotionally invested in them, do not realize the depth to which we may grieve.

I have seen clients so paralyzed with grief that they were unable to function on a day-to-day basis. I remember one retired couple who lost their 18 year old budgie, Blue, due to advanced kidney disease. When I called them to check and see how they were doing several weeks after Blue's death, the wife dropped the phone, loudly sobbing, at the sound of my voice! These were people who clearly were having serious difficulty dealing with their grief. There is help for owners who's grief over the loss of their pet has begun to interfere with normal daily life, and I felt that it was vital that I suggest to Blue's owners some options to help them deal with their overwhelming grief.

First, it is important to assure a grieving person that what they are feeling is real. Feelings are neither right nor wrong, they are just that: feelings. No one should try to dismiss their feelings as wrong or suggest that they shouldn't be so upset over their loss. It is best to simply acknowledge that you recognize their sorrow.

Immediately after a death of a pet, I send the owner a sympathy card with a hand-written note in it, offering my condolences. I try to make a point of calling the owner a week or two later to see how they are handling their loss. At that time, I am usually able to assess the situation to determine if intervention may be necessary to help the grieving person.

There are several options to help a person who is "stuck" in the grieving process. For example, many animal foundations offers grief counseling in groups for pet owners who need help. Individual counseling by a trained therapist is another option. There are many pet loss support hotlines that offer grief counseling staffed by veterinary students at veterinary colleges. Others are run by veterinary medical associations. Sometimes, all it takes is for a friend or fellow pet owner to listen while a grieving owner is allowed to talk freely about their pet. Sometimes, it is necessary for the veterinarian who cared for the sick or injured pet to discuss the details of the illness with the owner. This allows the owner to understand why his pet died, and to assure him that everything possible was done by the owner to aid the pet. Many owners suffer from guilt and anxiety over the choices made over the pet's care. Did they not notice the illness soon enough? Did they miss a dose of medication that might have saved the pet? If they had more money, could they have done more to save it? These types of questions can stall the grieving process, and the owner becomes unable to move through the stages of grief.

Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote a book called "On Death and Dying" which was a big help to me when I lost my father during my junior year of vet school. She describes the five stages of grieving as 1. Denial 2. Anger or Resentment 3. Bargaining 4. Depression (commonly called mourning) 5. Acceptance and Resolution. To fully heal after a death (either of a human or animal), one must usually go through these five stages. There is no specific time frame within which this must occur, as everyone grieves at their own pace. Grief over a human or a pet, while varying in intensity, usually follows the same five stages, but not always in the same order.

Regardless of the method of counseling, it is important for family, friends and associates to be supportive of the grieving person, allowing him to talk about the pet and his feelings. Telling a person that he should just get over it, or get on with his life or that he should get another bird to "replace" the lost pet should never be done. Although one peach-faced lovebird may be similar in appearance to another, they are not interchangeable, as each has its own unique personality, which every bird person knows!

When my beloved little marmoset died, the sympathy cards that I received from friends meant more to me than anyone will ever know. To have her short life acknowledged and celebrated in poems written by friends was very important to me. I strongly encourage all of you, my readers, to send a sympathy card to a friend or relative who has lost a pet. Write a short note inside the card about the pet. A few hand-written words from the heart are all that is necessary. Don't worry if you're not a good writer or that you might say the wrong thing. If you speak from your heart, and say a few things about the pet that you remember, you can't go wrong. Recount a funny incident or describe the pet. That's all it takes. You never know how much a grieving person may value that small token of sympathy.

For example, a few years ago, a client of mine who was an emu breeder was forced to euthanize her entire flock of birds due to an untreatable zoonotic illness (one that is contagious from birds to humans). While she had a commercial breeding operation, I knew that each of those birds was very special to her (most had names) and she lovingly cared for them every day up until the day they died. Shortly after all of the birds were humanely put to sleep (and she was there till the end), I wrote her a sympathy note expressing my condolences for her losses, as those birds were more like pets to her. Just today, I had lunch with this wonderful lady who had been through such heartache over her birds, and she told me that I was the only one to send her a condolence card after her birds died. She said it had meant the world to her and she had kept it up on her refrigerator for eight months, and read the words often, which offered her a measure of comfort. She then told me that she still has the treasured note, tucked away in her hope chest. I was truly surprised by her comments, as this was such a small gesture on my part, yet its significance to her was profound. The same will be true, to differing degrees, when you take a few moments to call or write to offer your condolences after the death of a pet.

If you have photos or a video of a deceased pet, it is usually best to not send those with the initial sympathy card. Seeing visual reminders of the pet may be too much for family members to deal with immediately after the death. It is usually better to wait a while before sending those along. After a period of time, when the pain of the death is not so fresh, you can offer to send or bring the materials over to the owner.

I have found that the "Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover's Soul" books make a good gift for someone going through the grieving process. There is an entire section devoted to "saying goodbye" and at least one story should touch the soul of a person who is grieving.

Animal people are very special people to me. When we decide to share our lives with our pets, we know that odds are, we are going to outlive those pets. By outliving them, we know that we are setting ourselves up for the pain and suffering that occurs when they die. But still, we choose to open our lives and hearts to our pets because the love and companionship that they offer us unconditionally is worth it a hundred times over!

Copyright 2006 Margaret A. Wissman, D.V.M., D.A.B.V.P.
All Rights Reserved

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