Helping Your Family Cope When a Pet Dies

Referring to the family dog as “man’s best friend” may be an old cliché, but Americans consider the pet part of the family.

According to Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D., a national grief counselor, author and director of the Center for Loss in Fort Collins, Colo., “The term ‘man’s best friend’ brings to mind the unconditional love, constant companionship and acceptance we feel for our pets.

“A pet can lower your blood pressure, change your heart rate or alleviate feelings of chronic loneliness.”

Americans own approximately 78.2 million dogs and 86.4 million cats. A recent survey of pet owners showed that 84% consider their animals family members; 99% talk to their pets; and 54% celebrate their pet’s birthday.

Pets are wonderful companions, but what happens to you and your family when your pet dies?

“With your capacity to love your pet comes the necessity to grieve when that ‘best friend’ dies,” Wolfelt said. “The death of a pet is, without a doubt, a traumatic experience.

“When your pet dies, your family needs to go through the grieving process. Grieving means to express your feelings, no matter how painful, outside of yourselves.”

Each family member probably had a unique relationship with the pet and will respond differently to the death.

You may want to have a funeral for the pet, offering time to acknowledge the loss, share memories of the pet and create an environment where the family can openly express emotions.

The death of a pet is sometimes the first opportunity parents have to help children during times of grief.

Any child old enough to love is old enough to grieve.

If your child loves a pet with all her heart, ask her how she wants to celebrate the pet’s life.

Adults should be open, honest and loving. Experiencing the death of a pet can teach children about the joy – and the pain – that comes from caring deeply.

Memories are one of the best legacies. Talk about and embrace these memories. Your pet entertained, comforted, frustrated but always loved you.

Remember those times. If your memories bring laughter, smile. If they bring sadness, cry.

Memories made in love can never be taken away.

Save the Date:  On Monday, Nov. 12, Alan Wolfelt will talk with families who have been touched by grief at the Celebration Center of Lexington, 1509 Trent Boulevard. The program is sponsored by Milward Funeral Directors and Hospice of the Bluegrass.