People can be surprised and embarrassed by their sorrow after losing a pet. Rose Mary Roche finds out how to cope with the death of a faithful friend

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In her memoir I Found My Tribe, Ruth Fitzmaurice writes: “When a pet dies, there is an empty space left where they used to be. You no longer feel or hear them moving through your world. They are just gone.”

The singular incident to provoke an outburst from her husband Simon, despite his debilitating motor neurone disease, is the moment she tells him she has had their dog Pappy put down. She describes Simon’s anguished response: “You killed my dog. You killed my dog without asking me. How could you? How could you do such a bad thing?”

Two weeks ago I empathised with Ruth when I had to euthanise our Jack Russell, Jack, after a stroke. I was devastated – the grief was intense, raw and overwhelming. Such grief for a pet can also be compounded by guilt when you have decided to end their life. It is a lonely place. However, if we take into account Dr Susan Delaney of the Irish Hospice Foundation’s explanation that “we grieve when we lose what is important to us”, then grief for a pet shouldn’t be a source of embarrassment but rather a testament to our love.

Dr Delaney, a clinical psychologist, encourages people to grieve their pet fully and without embarrassment. She elaborates: “We don’t always know how we’re going to respond to a loss until it happens… we don’t choose our feelings.”

Losing a pet, she continues, can represent “a tremendous loss in peoples’ lives” and advises you should be “allowing yourself to feel what you feel and validate it, and seeking out people who will validate it”.

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Grief for a pet transcends all social stratification – the news that Queen Elizabeth was hit “extremely hard” by the recent death of her 14-year-old corgi Willow (a direct descendant of her first corgi Susan, and the last of her famous dogs) makes all pet owners empathise with her. Prince or pauper, your dog loves you regardless.

In a society that is increasingly fragmented, uncertain and isolated, the unconditional love of a dog or cat brings joy every day. Losing that connection can be debilitating. Learning to live with grief for a pet takes time: there is no instant, easy panacea. The intense bond that pet owners share with their animals means they are usually heartbroken by their death.

For most, a pet is never a mere animal, but a loved family member with positive memories of companionship and loyalty. Despite this, people can be surprised by the depth of their grief when their pet dies.

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(Karen Donohue with her new Basset Hound, Barney)

Sadly, the more significance the pet had in your life, the more intense the grief at their death.

Grainne Walsh from Dublin enjoyed an especially close relationship with her 14-year-old boxer Maud, who died in March. Both had suffered from cancer and survived, and were inseparable. Grainne explains: “She survived cancer at around nine and, later, was there for me as I battled breast cancer myself… I had Maud and the other dog’s support which was so wonderful at that time.”

When the cancer returned, Grainne knew when Maud was ready to go. “What a lovely gift it was for us to be able to let her go to sleep in our arms, pain free and peacefully when the time was right.”

However, grief is still strong: “It’s early days and I miss her every day. I sniff her bed and her collar and cry most days, but mostly it is with happy memories I think of her.” She encourages owners to “go through the sadness, cry, look at photos, go on familiar walks, don’t avoid it – it is healing”.

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(Healing Process. Karen with her sons and Barney)

Having to put a beloved pet ‘to sleep’ is one of the most fraught and challenging events in an animal lover’s life. Acknowledging that there is no relief you can give a loved pet is a bitter pill. Devoted dog lover Belinda Dyer from Kilkenny, who has owned over 20 dogs during her lifetime, explains: “I think it’s one of the most difficult decisions in your life because with adults, the doctors, everyone else makes the decision, but with a dog, it’s you that’s in charge. It’s you that has to respect the dog basically and to love them enough to be able to do that to them.”

Techniques for coping with the loss of a pet include talking to others who have lost a pet, organising a funeral ritual, visualising happy memories and bereavement counselling. But for Belinda, keeping her deceased pets near her home, buried in a dedicated graveyard with their own gravestones, has been hugely comforting. Despite this, she admits: “Saying goodbye is soul destroying and it takes weeks if not months to shake off their image.”

The pain of losing a pet can be especially traumatic for children, who view a dog as a best friend or sibling.

Karen Donoghue from Naas and her three boys were bereft when their shih tzu/terrier cross Odie had to be put down last year after an incident with a child.

For the boys, it was heartbreaking as Odie was a healthy dog and for the youngest Brendan (7), it was particularly devastating. Karen now regrets using the euphemism “putting to sleep” as “Brendan thought that he would wake up again” and was “extremely angry” when the truth dawned. She advises parents to be honest with children about a pet’s death, and that it’s “okay to express those emotions rather than let them build up inside”.

Karen advises: “It’s a life lesson – it definitely prepares you for life. It is good for kids to know about death.” Dr Delaney of the IHF concurs with this: “With our children, we should always… mark those small losses and that helps set us up for bigger losses in our lives. They all matter.”

Since burying a pet in residential areas is now illegal, pet cremations have become commonplace. Glen Patten of Pawprints Cremation Ireland cremates the remains of up to 40 pets a week, returning the ashes to the owner in two to three weeks. Glen’s own boxer Simba was the first dog he cremated. This experience has benefited the service he provides. “I was heartbroken when it happened… I go back to when I had my pet cremated and I do the cremations the way my pet was cremated,” he says. “She basically taught me how to do a cremation.”

Swearing off pet ownership after the death of Simba, he adds: “I swore I’d never go through the heartache again.” But he now has two dogs and says: “Never say never. If the time is right, it will happen.”

For Karen Donoghue too, adopting a new family dog, Barney, has been instrumental in the family’s healing process. “It was sooner than I thought, but I think it was the best thing because it brought back up the whole mood in the house and brought us out of ourselves.”

While there is no specific timetable for grief, when you are ready, a new animal can be therapeutic. You never replace a beloved pet but if you have honoured your pet’s memory, bonding with a different dog or cat can alleviate the heartache. As John Katz, the animal author advises: “When an animal dies, it gives you the chance to love another animal.”

Dr Delaney sums up her advice: “Allow happy memories to come alongside the difficult memories. And know that pain does ease… we have to integrate the loss. The way we get over grieving is by grieving.”


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