“The loss of a pet affects everyone in a family,” said Laureeann Empey-Ruel, owner of Pet Bereavement Counseling in Massachusetts. In 1979, Laureeann helped create the home hospice services we know today. While helping people at the end of their lives, she was drawn to the pets left behind. Today, she channels her love of animals and knowledge of the grief process by providing counseling to people who have lost a pet.
When dealing with the death of a pet, people experience the stages of grief documented by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. Stages include: Denial & Isolation, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. “Grieving for a pet can become complicated when we start to feel guilty about it,” said Laureeann. “You or someone you trust might say ‘it was just a dog,’ and this creates feelings of isolation.” As a counselor, Laureeann encourages people experiencing grief and sadness to accept gifts, sympathy and condolences graciously.
A Child’s View
“Be open and honest with children,” says Laureeann. “Avoid using stories about sending a pet to a special farm. This can seem temporary or reversible through the eyes of a child and it prohibits them from grieving fully.” Although talking with children about death is difficult, Laureeann finds that honesty is the best way to prevent deeper issues from developing. “Explain that your pet does not feel well and that he is never going to feel well again.” She suggests sharing with a child the book The Fall of Freddie the Leaf by Leo Buscaglia. Watch for signs such as bed wetting, trouble eating and behavioral outbursts before and after your pet’s passing as signs a child might require the assistance of a pediatric counselor.
Adults Need Time
“Be gentle with yourself. Concentration and memory can be affected,” said Laureeann. “If you cannot take vacation or sick time, go easy while working. You might experience somatic symptoms such as headaches, loss of appetite or insomnia. This is all a normal part of grief.” She encourages mourners to take it slowly and understand the emotions they have which may seem irrational, such as crying every time they speak of their pet, are part of the grief process – a process which can take up to a year to complete. Time does heal.