My 12 year-old dog, Arlo, is very sick. He has been my children's and my faithful, loving, happy and good-natured child/sibling since we adopted him from the Fairfield pound in 1999. To describe facing his demise as "difficult" is beyond understatement. When you bring a young animal into your home, you never think about the grief you'll feel when his or her life is coming to an end. Even though it's inevitable, now that the time is near, it is crushing.
To that end, I discussed how to grapple with losing a canine (or feline, for that matter) member of the family with pet bereavement counselor, Pat Gallagher, a longtime resident of Darien. She is a dynamic woman of what she calls a "certain age." If her bright red hair and broad smile weren't infectious enough, Pat's warmth and understanding made me feel free to unabashedly blabber about my wonderful dog, and about my sharp grief in facing the end of his life. Her frankness and knowledge made me realize that, like any grieving process, among the most helpful things to do is to talk about the pain -- and about those things that made your pet the steadfast friend you adored.
"With any emotional trauma," says Pat, "If people find a person with whom they can share their emotional upset without being judged, then they can recover more quickly. The fact that you're feeling pain over the loss of your animal is very real."
But I had to wonder, "am I ever going to get over losing Arlo? Do people get over losing their precious pets?" Pat has some solid suggestions on this. "Well, I encourage people to do what's good for them. If they're eager to adopt another animal sooner rather than later, that's a good thing." But she adds, "It's sad when people don't have the opportunity to release their grief in order to adopt another animal. It bespeaks the fact that bereaved animal owners need understanding and respect."
I'm also wondering how I'm going to get through the upcoming weeks or maybe months, as I watch Arlo's life wind down. Perhaps I'm seeking to inoculate myself against the acute pain that awaits me, but I wonder how I will handle it. She tells me I'll need to "eat and sleep well, and to exercise." But she also recommends that grieving animal owners seek counseling for depression, if necessary. "People, men especially, need to remember that grief is a step toward recovering. It's not weakness," she says. "It's very real pain." She adds that taking steps to memorialize your pet "in your heart "-- such as planting a tree or lighting a candle -- can help you "honor the animal whose only job was to love you."
I'm grateful to Pat for giving me ways to manage my grief over losing Arlo. It seems she and Arlo have much the same philosophy: keep it real.
How have you grappled with the loss of a beloved pet? Please share your thoughts here. Your words might help a grieving pet owner.
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