Helping Seniors Cope With Pet Loss and Grief

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No one gets out alive. So it’s a particularly rich irony that so many people insist on denying death, planning for it, or even mentioning it. But that’s a topic for another time — and another website.

The reality of death hits many people hardest when they lose a beloved pet. And try as they might, they can’t avoid the grief that follows. Grief is messy. It hurts and jangles and disrupts. And it often seems to come and go in waves, making emotions and life unpredictable.

And for a whole host of reasons, losing and grieving for a pet can be particularly difficult and unsettling for older people.

Seniors, Pets, and Grief

Many older seniors say they are closer to their pets than any human being; some affectionately refer to their cats, dogs, or birds as their “family of choice.” On Grief Healing, bereavement counselor Marty Tousley stresses that older people frequently form the most intense relationships when loving and caring for a pet.

That connection enables them to:

  • Feel productive, useful, and needed
  • Engage more actively in life while seeing to the animal’s needs
  • Experience companionship and conversation that helps stave off loneliness
  • Be motivated to take better care of themselves while charged with the responsibility of caring for another being
  • Feel touched physically
  • Give and receive unconditional love.

Understanding the magnitude and meaning of the relationship also makes it easier to understand how much an older person loses when a pet dies.

“As I often tell my clients, love is love, loss is loss, and pain is pain,” Tousley says. “Without a doubt, the loss of a loved animal companion and the feelings associated with that loss are real — and they deserve a time of grief, mourning, and healing.”

Wendy Van de Poll, founder of the Center for Pet Loss Grief and author of numerous books related to the topic, including Healing Your Heart From Pet Loss Grief: Five Things to Begin Your Journey agrees. She also underscores that American society tends to “devalue” grief over the loss of pets, although she feels that disconnect is slowly changing, with some companies even offering time off with pay to workers who have lost pets. You can also see it in the burgeoning industries of sympathy cards focusing on bereaved pet owners, as well as the growth and acceptance of pet hospice services and pet loss grief counseling.

Still, Van de Poll says she hears the same sentiments from many of her clients who seek out advice for dealing with grief after losing their pets. “They will say: ‘I don’t want to be grieving. I want to go to work.’ Or: ‘People are telling me I should be over this by now’,” she says, pointing the blame at a society that seems hell-bent on moving through everything quickly. “It’s so important for us to slow down and look at the cycle of life and what it can teach us.”

What many people are too hurried to feel or understand is that a pet’s death can also trigger unresolved issues around all kinds of losses from the past or the realization of their own mortality. Seniors, who have typically mounted up losses in their lifetimes and are statistically closer to their own deaths, may suffer these emotional shakings most strongly.

How You Can Help

There are a few ways you can offer support to an older person who is facing the illness and death of a pet.

Understand the complications. If a pet is seriously ill, make sure the senior gets the best information possible. Offer to accompany him or her to the vet’s office, prompt the vet to give loud and clear explanations if needed, and take notes about important information that may be more easily digested later. Also understand that a financially strapped senior may need to forego expensive tests and treatments and make life and death decisions based on finances.

Just listen.Honor the complicated feelings that seniors may be struggling with during a pet’s illness and after its death. Bear in mind that the griever will likely be dealing with unresolved feelings of guilt, anger, or sadness — and encourage him or her to express them.

While there are no perfect words to ease the personal pain associated with losing a beloved pet, grief experts are quick to point out the one thing notto say: “Why don’t you get another cat (or dog or bird or horse or other animal) to replace the one you just lost? While many people offer the suggestion in a well-meaning way, it usually comes across as denigrating a loss to a grieving owner. Some older people, in time, do seek solace in adopting an older pet or in providing temporary foster care for a shelter pet. But as an outside supporter, don’t push or rush that idea.

Better to show tangible support — perhaps by cooking some healthy meals to have on hand, offering hugs, checking in with phone calls, or sending flowers and notes. All agree that the best way to help is just to listen, without making a judgment.

Encourage professional help. If the symptoms of grieving and mourning persist in a way that makes it hard or impossible for the senior to function, encourage him or her to seek help from a professional counselor.  Many hospice organizations now offer individual and group pet grief support as part of their services. Vets and animal shelter personnel may also be able to make good local referrals for targeted counseling.

But a few words of warning: There is a growing crop of pet grief charlatans out there calling themselves coaches, mentors, therapists, and counselors. If you or the senior locate someone to work with, be sure find out the specific training they received in helping with pet loss. Reading a few books, attending a weekend workshop, and even personally experiencing pet loss does not an expert make.

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