We’d been talking about our pets. And then . . .
“Do you think we should offer a support group for people grieving a pet’s death?”
That was a question a colleague asked after returning from a hospital visit. There, she’d supported parents facing the impending death of their infant. I’d just finished a bereavement phone call to a woman who had been a widow for two awful weeks and was soon to contact a twenty-something son whose mother died days before her fiftieth birthday.
I’d answered her with, “Maybe we should consider it.”
My hospice has an array of services for the bereaved. There are support groups for children after a parent’s death, spouses grieving spouses, teens struggling with the death of parent or grandparent, parents who just had a baby or an adult child die, and those overwhelmed by a loved one’s suicide or homicide. We’ve offered groups that include painting and writing for healing along the journey of grief. We have a new group for caregivers. We have grief counselors, with some “clients” visiting a few times and others, especially those with complex grief, involved in weekly therapy sessions for months. Workshops are offered. We sponsor an annual conference on grief. We . . .
In other words, we—like many hospices—currently have and continually explore new ways to support people grappling with the death of a beloved.
But what about pets . . . and I don’t mean only cats and dogs! How many become attached to winged or shelled or scaly creatures? While the likes of turtles and birds have little appeal to me, there are countless grieving pet owners for all sorts of creatures.
My cynical side knows our culture goes overboard on pets. According to a Labor Department study,
Americans spent over $61 billion on their pets in 2011, with the average household spending just over $500 on their pets during the year. That’s more than the average household spent on alcohol, men’s clothing, or landline telephones. The data show that pet spending hit a peak in 2008, at $571 per household, then dropped off sharply, eventually hitting $480 in 2010.
But my compassionate side wonders about pet owners and the loss of companionship.
I am a pet owner. My heart has been “owned” by several cats and a magnificent dog. Indeed, I doubt that I could have written any coherent words about pets and grief immediately after the October 2014 death of Hannah, our golden retriever. My wife, since childhood, can highlight her route from a kindergarten kid to a university professor by the cats in her life. Every pet brought joy. They have traveled cross-country with us in cars. They have helped turn a house into a home. Like many pet owners who don’t have children, my wife and I treat our pets like family. Would you like to see a picture of Hannah at two months old? How about a picture—or a thousand pictures—when she hiked mountain trails with us?
People grieve pets. Pets can become “substitute” kids. Unlike most children, our pets never become independent. They need us to buy their food, provide shelter, and take them to veterinarians (which accounted for 14 billion dollars of the annual 60+ billion spent on pets).
Our pets comfort us. They don’t criticize or judge. They cause laughter with silly antics and soothe our anxiety when we’re troubled. They warm our laps, walk beside us on chilly mornings, and teach us the importance of a nice nap. My wife and I once took Hannah to a fancy restaurant in upscale Carmel (on the California coast). A “dog friendly” place, we dined on an outside patio. At one point, we chatted with the owner while Hannah dozed at our feet.
I asked the owner, “Have you ever kicked anyone out because the dog misbehaved?”
He paused, smiled, and then said, “Never kicked a dog out, but I’ve asked a few humans to leave.”
When he was president of France, Charles de Gaulle mused, “The better I get to know men, the more I find myself loving dogs.”
My wife and I grieved the death of four pets in 2014. We had three cats and a dog, all nearly the same age. The youngest—Moses, the hunter kitty—died first in February, in his thirteenth year. The others followed, with three more deaths by October.
I again grieved the loss of my parents through my pets’ deaths. Our cat Moses’ unexpected (and anguished) demise was reminiscent of Mom’s cancer diagnosis and the devastatingly quick death that followed. Our dog’s final months, as Hannah slowly lost hearing, sight, and the ability to lift herself from the floor, echoed my father’s dementia and his dreary years of dying.
For others, a pet’s death can mark the last connection to raising children, the blunt loneliness of old age, or a stark reminder of the owner’s own mortality.
Should we offer something for those grieving the death of a pet?
What do you think?
(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)by