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A gravestone at Valley Pet Cemetery and Crematory in Williamsport, Md. (Photo by Christopher Rossi)


Confronting Grief Over the Death of a Pet

c.2005 Newhouse News Service


More stories by Michele Melendez

Alan Anstine's heart-hardening years of police work couldn't shield him from the choking sadness he felt after his pet poodle died.

Anstine, 59, of Culpeper, Va., scoured the Internet for people who understood his bond with the fluffy dog, named Joe. On a pet-loss message board, he bared his hurt.

"I talked about how I had this dog for 20 years and the horrible, empty feeling, feeling lost when he died," Anstine recalled.

As their bereavement becomes more visible and accepted, grieving pet owners are finding comfort on the Internet and telephone hot lines, at animal shelters and pet cemeteries, in pet clinics and therapists' offices.

Even so, they too often hear: "It's only a pet. Go get another one. What's the matter with you?" said Wallace Sife, a psychologist and president of the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Some hide their distress.

"Whenever you have secrets in anything, there's a sense of shame," said therapist Robyn Zeiger, whose love of dogs led her to incorporate pet grief counseling into her Silver Spring, Md., practice. "We're really ... looking for a safe place."

Anstine, who served about 30 years in Washington-area police departments before retiring on disability, found a sanctuary on the Web in 1998, the year Joe died. He continues to post messages, helping others through pain and discussing the loss of his other dogs -- most recently an 8-year-old poodle named Gi-Gi, who died in January 2004, nine days after being attacked by another dog.

"She was a true lady," Anstine said. "She was one of my life's loves."

Brad Kukuk, 44, of Arlington, Va., found his haven by chance. He was fighting tears in a clinic waiting room, about to receive the body of his beloved orange cat, Mitsu. To distract himself, he flipped through a pet services book and spotted a classified ad about a local support group meeting that very night.

Days earlier, while Kukuk was visiting his parents in Minnesota, Mitsu fell six stories from a window in Kukuk's apartment and was found by a friend. The fall left the 19-year-old female tabby paralyzed, and the absent Kukuk had to make the excruciating decision to have her put to sleep.

Mitsu had shared almost half his life, lived with him in four states, heard secrets he shared with no human. The support group truly felt his pain.

"I was a mess, full of emotions, grief, crying, the works," Kukuk remembered of that day in 2001. "This room was full of people who knew what I was going through."

Knowing that others have suffered the same way helps tremendously, counselors say.

"It's not an odd thing at all" to mourn a pet, said Barbara (Bobbie) Beach, clinical counselor at the Argus Institute for Families and Veterinary Medicine of Colorado State University in Fort Collins. "It's absolutely normal grief."

Beach said some feel embarrassed because a pet's death has affected them more than the passing of a friend or family member. That sentiment is reasonable: "The animals are with us every single waking moment we're home, and more," she said.

Given that attachment, people may seek spiritual reassurance that their pets are at peace. While religious scholars debate, some clergy say animals have souls.

Some animal owners "want to feel that there's a life for the pet after death," said the Rev. Deborah Wheeling, veterinary chaplain at the Pet Clinic of Rocky Mount in Virginia. Animals "were here before us. They're children of God."

Wheeling, ordained in the independent Free Catholic Church, said she has ministered to people of many faiths and finds evidence in the Bible and Quran that animals are sacred. She said the veterinarians at her clinic have welcomed her voluntary services, recognizing the need.

Observers say would-be veterinarians are increasingly learning to appreciate that human-animal bond, as schools stress the connection in classes and students man pet-loss hot lines.

"The students are taught something about the stages of grieving, what (pet owners) go through" and how grieving for a pet might compare to mourning a person, said Gail Golab, a veterinarian and assistant director of communications at the American Veterinary Medical Association in Schaumburg, Ill.

Veterinarians' offices, animal hospitals and other businesses catering to pet owners keep pet loss resources handy.

At Valley Pet Cemetery and Crematory in Williamsport, Md., staff refer clients in need to places of refuge, including the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement, which maintains a directory of counselors, and www.Petloss.com, which lists support groups and runs a message board.

David Drury, Valley Pet's general manager, said owners can bid goodbye in various ways, from arranging a funeral service with an open casket to buying a cemetery plot that will accommodate both pet and owner.

"We try to be as considerate and compassionate as possible," Drury said, even for unconventional requests. "Just like when a human passes away, each person handles it differently."

When David Ljung Madison's dog died, he responded with what felt natural. As Kodi, a 12-year-old female Akita, was dying from cancer, Madison chronicled her progress on his personal Web site. After Kodi's death Nov. 8, Madison, 33, created a tribute page for her.

He shared warm recollections: how Kodi recognized people by the sound of their footsteps and licked the floor for no discernible reason. The memorial "grew out of the need to put down these memories," said Madison, of San Francisco.

Madison included information on the type of cancer Kodi had, space for friends and family to write their own thoughts, and a widely circulated poem called "The Rainbow Bridge," which tells of a place pets go after death, where, healthy and frolicking, they wait to be reunited with their owners.

Marion Hale has seen countless such commemorations as manager of member forums and memorials for Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, Utah. She said that kind of raw expression can soothe both writer and reader: "It's a validation of these feelings from the people who've been there."

Tam Mjelde, 42, of Renton, Wash., said she was so touched by a poem posted to the Best Friends Web site that she read it aloud, between sobs, to a picture of her cat Annie.

Mjelde had Annie put to sleep last year at an emergency clinic after an X-ray revealed a large tumor in the cat's throat. Annie, estimated to be about 9 years old, had also been suffering from inflammatory bowel disease. Mjelde felt pressure. Annie could barely breathe, and Mjelde was due to leave on a plane for vacation within hours.

Mjelde still wonders whether she did the right thing at the right time. She regrets catching that plane. She is haunted by the look in Annie's eyes before her death.

The poem read, "I didn't want you to suffer anymore. I hope I didn't disappoint you with that decision."

After she read the tribute to Annie's picture, Mjelde said, she thought, "Wow, that was one step closer to healing."

Feb. 3, 2005

(Michele M. Melendez can be contacted at michele.melendez@newhouse.com)