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The Loss of a Pet: A Guide to Coping with the Grieving Process When a Pet Dies

The Loss of a Pet: A Guide to Coping with the Grieving Process When a Pet Dies

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The Loss of a Pet: A Guide to Coping with the Grieving Process When a Pet Dies

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Mar 18, 2014


Understanding helps heal the hurt when you lose a pet

A cherished pet gives you boundless, unconditional love and occupies a special place in your routine, your home, and your heart. When your pet dies, that warm, special place becomes a sad, empty space. This book helps you understand:
* The grieving process, including typical stages of grief and techniques for coping
* Grieving for a missing pet, one you had to give up because of a change in life situation, and other difficult circumstances
* Children and the death of a pet
* Euthanasia, including important considerations
* Religion and the death of a pet, with articles by various religious leaders
* Aftercare facilities, including an extensive index of pet cemeteries, crematories, and memorial gardens

This award-winning book has been hailed as the seminal work in the field. And now the fourth newly revised and expanded edition offers so much more to the bereaving pet owner. This edition also includes a significant new way of considering the meaning of afterlife for us and our pets. It discusses the topic from a twenty-first–century scientific perspective that is very different from existing religious or metaphysical ones, offering a new comfort to skeptics and agnostics as well.
Mar 18, 2014

Sobre el autor

WALLACE SIFE, Ph.D. is a psychologist and internationally renowned authority on pet bereavement, and a pioneer in this field. The first edition of this celebrated classic won the prestigious Maxwell Award for the best nonfiction pet book of 1993. Dr. Sife founded and is the CEO of the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement (APLB), a nonprofit organization that offers a broad spectrum of help to grieving pet owners (www.aplb.org). He also is renowned for his special seminars to train counselors in this field.

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The Loss of a Pet - Wallace Sife, Ph.D.



Grief must have a purpose and direction;

otherwise, it is unproductive and destructive.

– Anonymous

This book is written for you if you are the special kind of person who grieves deeply for the loss of a pet. Or, if you have a beloved pet now, these pages can also help enhance your overall awareness and joy in its companionship. Unfortunately, all living things die, and although you can never be really prepared for that, what is offered here will help you learn to draw upon your love, to minimize your grief and pain. For all pet lovers, bereavement is actually the onset to our permanent celebration of the joyous life and very special love we had together.

The previous editions of this book were hailed as the seminal work in the field. But it is now many years later, and so much more has been experienced and learned. This new update draws on those additional years of practical experience gleaned from counseling over thirty thousand bereaving pet owners in the special chat rooms of the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement (APLB), www.aplb.org. Logic can’t possibly teach as well as this kind of extensive experience. The best experts in the field are constantly learning and honing their already impressive skills. As the founder and leader of this wonderful organization, I am very positively impressed with how well our bereaving visitors do after working with us. And what has been additionally gleaned from that has now been added to this new edition.

What is presented in these pages will start by helping you realize that you are not alone. So many millions of others have suffered the same anguish. What we have additionally learned from these tragic experiences now can help you cope and effectively deal with it. This edition also incorporates the most efficient counseling approaches dealing with this unique bereavement and grief. It will explain the exceptionally painful and mystifying impact on your life and show how you can manage it. Perhaps surprisingly, it will also show you how you can eventually incorporate this tragic loss into your future life and actually help make you a better person because of it. As you will see, it is all about love.

The shock of loss and bereavement for a beloved pet is one of the most profound emotional traumas we can experience, and it should be nothing to be embarrassed by. The imposed stigma of shame and sense of isolation is something that you will now be able to better understand and productively deal with. Since so little had been known about this special kind of bereavement up until recently, it is natural to wonder whether such powerful reactions for a pet are normal. The death of a beloved pet can be likened to the death of a very dependent surrogate child who adored us beyond comparison. Reading these pages will help you better understand why this loss is mourned and grieved over very differently than any other kind.

It is important to know that the exceptional feelings and irrational periods we go through at this time are common symptoms that we all experience. Unfortunately, because of this lack of information, many rational people question their own sanity and stability at such nerve-wracking moments. Intellectually, we might understand the death of a beloved pet, but it is so hard to accept, emotionally. This is always so heartbreaking and out of proportion when still in the grips of such deep shock and bereavement. What you will learn here about yourself and your grief will convince you that you are not in any way losing your mind. The loss of a pet is a unique emotional trauma, and the pain and confusion you are experiencing will be demystified in these pages. Learning about the unavoidable stages of bereavement for a beloved pet will help you deal more effectively with your grief and distress.

Nobody wants to live forever. And when we can also somehow put that into perspective for our dear ones, it makes a lot of new sense. They have their own strong sense of animal dignity, too. It is prudent to be guided to apply this wisdom, regarding the death of our beloved companion animals as well. It can help you come to better terms with your bereavement. In time, you will better comprehend why there is no way to exist in this world of change without accepting loss.

I am always asked how long the terrible pain will go on. But there is no easy answer. There are too many different personal factors involved in determining this. Some of these will be examined in later chapters of this book. However, it is good to know that we can help the healing process when we change or modify some daily routines that formerly involved the deceased pet. Also, too many constant physical reminders and associations left about the house become very upsetting. It would be useful to remove or reduce their numbers, for the time being at least. In addition, if we allow ourselves to speak about our loss and grieve freely, the mourning period will be shorter and more constructive. We let some of the pain out this way, which makes room for healing. Recalling and sharing loving memories will also help our healing, while honoring our dear ones at the same time.

In clinical studies, it has been found that some people have special problems that never allow them to truly complete their mourning process. Therefore, they suffer much more than they should, and bear their grief needlessly for many years—even for the rest of their lives. The heartbreak we endure can be so tragic that, at first, we feel we need to suffer without end. So it is absolutely essential to give ourselves permission to heal. Otherwise, we are spinning our wheels and will stay mired in our misery. You will gain some new perspectives on that from these pages.

Human beings are creatures of habit and structure. We find security in routines and established orders. Our individual bonds form powerful subconscious templates for our behaviors. Living with a beloved pet for an extended part of our lives produces new patterns that become deeply embedded in who we are. All of us lovingly adapt our lifestyles around this cherished adopted family member, and we become completely conditioned to the pet and these routines. This habituated way of life with a dear companion animal becomes taken for granted, and we go on as if it will never end.

But it does end, and suddenly our beloved one is gone! Regardless of the pet’s age or health, we can never be really prepared for this. The resultant shock is an unavoidable psychological reaction and cannot be easily dismissed or glossed over. Our whole life goes through a violent emotional upheaval. It is as if a great jagged hole had been ripped out of one’s life. You now need time and patience with yourself, and this book will teach and help you achieve that. Bereavement is a slow time process that progresses in stages. Reading and learning about them here will help you greatly.

You probably also have experienced situations in which you were forced by insensitive others to feel defensive and secretive about your bereavement. We cannot avoid all contact with people who say that we should not suffer real bereavement for a pet—which is only an animal and can easily be replaced. Such ignorant responses reflect their personal deficiencies or problems and should not become ours, especially at this very painful and vulnerable time of loss. These cynical critics have never known the unique love of a pet, proving themselves unqualified to judge us in this grief. They are not pet-oriented people, and they lack the wisdom of experience this provides. But be grateful for any sincere attempts by others, however awkward, to ease your pain. These pages will help you learn to make this important distinction. There is a special chapter here just on that.

Well-intentioned people will try to get us to act cheery. They get upset seeing us cry, and they just don’t realize that we must go through a deeply personal period of mourning and bereavement. We also have to learn to be patient with them and their ignorance of the profundity of all this.

In our emergency time of need, it often seems that there are too few people who have a sense of the depths of our bereavement. As a defensive posture, we readjust our relationships with others, including close friends and family members. This can be extremely disappointing or even aggravating at times. But we must also learn to be cautious and avoid hasty, angry overreactions—which are very easily experienced now and most likely will be regretted later. Our perceived sense of disappointment and justified anger too often can override our common sense during this especially unstable time of our life. We are most vulnerable now, but we somehow still have to keep our best interests in perspective. That can mean having to wait a bit before making any impulsive decisions, regardless of our distress and impulsiveness at the moment.

For many valid reasons, the mourning for a pet can be far more intense than for a human. This will be explained in more detail in the chapters that follow. The pain you are experiencing now is terrible and can be very debilitating. You are actually mourning the death of your dearest friend, as well as a very close member of your immediate family—nothing less! It is interesting to note how many refer to their dear pets as their furbabies or soul mates. In addition to being our surrogate children, they are also our dearest friends, lovers, as well as our alter egos. Mourning this unique kind of loss will be very painful and seemingly unending. Understanding how to deal with this will help you a great deal.

Death, in general, is a subject that most people in Western cultures are very uncomfortable with. Actually, many find it frightening and avoid thinking about it. Discussion of the subject is awkward or even impossible. People don’t know how to handle it without embarrassment, evasion, or pretense. They often use euphemisms, which attempt to provide sanitized expressions for more specific terms and ideas.

You may discover that the passing of your cherished companion pet is too difficult or distressing to discuss with people who are not completely sympathetic—or able to deal with your loss. Historically, Western tradition and religions have avoided the subject of pet death, leaving the full responsibility and burden solely up to the confused, lonely, and distraught mourner of a beloved animal. Up until very recently, each person had to suffer alone. But now we have become part of a huge and increasingly outspoken community within our ever-changing society. As isolated in your grief as it may at first seem, you will quickly learn that you are not alone.

Our unique bereavement needs are being cared for in greater degrees every year.

The APLB is an outstanding and very necessary service that was specially formed to deal with the special tribulations of our community. Visit our website: www.aplb.org. It has been designed as the perfect complement to this book.

Individual pastoral counseling for pet bereavement, if it can be found, may offer some help. Unfortunately, the death of companion animals is not dealt with by most of the world’s major religions. Yet there are a great many of us who believe the concept of a soul includes any sentient being that is endowed with love. But this is too often met with skepticism and doubt. Only in the past few years has some theological adjustment been made to address the problems of pet death and bereavement. This book presents a unique chapter, partly composed of brief articles by varied religious leaders. And it concludes with a special section for those who do not believe in souls or have religion in their lives. That unique essay explains afterlife in a completely new perspective—strictly from a modern scientific cosmological perspective. It is unique and has already helped so many bereavers who otherwise felt lost or left out. Reading these varied points of view can help you gain a new outlook on this special problem.

Pets have become more significant, loved members of most households. Aside from veterinary care, a $53 billion annual business now caters to the other needs and care of pets in the United States alone. And that amazing number is constantly rising. All this economic pressure has its influence on us, through mass-media advertising, products on the shelves, new jobs in the industry, and so many other ways that affect our normal daily lives. Today you see more pets than ever on the Internet and television and in the movies. And they are showing up in greater frequency in contemporary literature and even songs. We are a nation of pets, and the grief suffered in their loss is a subject that is finally becoming much better understood, respected, and accepted.

It is no longer surprising to hear of other people who are in deep grief over the death of a beloved pet. Unfortunately, their plight had conventionally been kept in the closet or put aside as personal weakness and indulgence. But since this is a human story now being heard so often, others are getting a strong message from it. There are huge numbers of all kinds of pets in the United States alone. Aside from birds and other, rarer kinds of animals, today there are well over 78 million pet dogs and 86 million beloved cats—who are continually dying. Many millions of us every year are affected by the death of a family pet, and we are all hurting, in varying degrees. Because of the enormous numbers of people involved so emotionally, bereavement for a beloved pet is fast becoming more accepted as a normal social experience. And now it is also much easier to find a pet loss counselor or support group, although there are still far too few of them.

Dynamic changes in contemporary civilization are causing the disappearance of the extended household, as well as a decrease in family size. Along with a very rapidly growing population, there are now many more single, divorced, and widowed people than ever before. It is not surprising that these individuals own more pets than most others. Lonely people, especially, are very aware of the unique love and companionship—as well as the therapeutic effects companion animals have in enriching and sustaining their lives.

In many ways, the trusted pet becomes a symbol of our own secret selves—an alter ego, of sorts. It represents an innocence and grace we feel but cannot express to other humans. Without a beloved pet, this important self-discovery may never be made. This is only one more reason, out of many, for the intensity of grief and bereavement for such a death. It can feel as if the best part of one’s self has died with the pet, and we weep for that, as well. Another thing that affects us is that the pet is a loving soul, and we mourn that special loss. This is completely different from bereavement for a dearly loved human, and it is wrong to compare them. This book will go into that in careful detail.

We want to believe that our darling pet has gone to some other realm and that someday we will be there to join again. Although nobody really knows the answer, too little is spoken about this, leaving us even more upset during our especially vulnerable time of need. Be wary, though. Unfortunately, there are some who would try to convince you that they can relay messages between you and your deceased loved one. Your grief and great susceptibility at this time can easily make you an unwitting target, which will be regretted later.

When we put the key in the lock and opened the door, who has not experienced that special sense of excitement and greeting? Our coming home was always a major event to our pet. Over the years, we had become so used to anticipating our special welcome—from a meow to a tail-thumping salute and kisses. And this can also be lovingly demonstrated in so many other individual ways. But now the home is shockingly silent, and it feels terribly empty. Nevertheless, the pet’s presence still seems to be everywhere. At this early stage, it is not unusual to imagine for a brief moment that we see glimpses or hear fleeting sounds of our pet. That is a very normal thing, and most of us have experienced it. After this loss, we still live in the echoes of the loving patterns that became our way of life. It takes time—and a lot of healing tears.

The loss of a pet also has another meaning for some. There are many heartbroken people who have literally lost their pets. Whether this was caused by their companion animals’ wandering off, unexpected happenings or circumstances, or even theft, these loving pet owners are thrown into a special crisis that is not comparable to anything else. Among other anxieties, they grieve and worry whether their pet will be sold to an experimental lab or will be injured or killed by cars or other animals. It could also end up unidentified in a pound somewhere, where it would be euthanized, along with the very many millions of other poor strays in this country each year. A lost or missing pet is an especially horrible kind of loss, where there rarely is a happy ending. These loving pet owners are also in a state of mourning and will go through all the painful stages of bereavement you will learn about later, especially unresolved guilt. A special chapter on this unique kind of loss has been added for their benefit.

At this unique time during pet bereavement, the people we rely on most may fall short of our needs and expectations. We are very fortunate if we find a caring, supportive new friend, usually another pet owner, who can share our unique feelings and responses. Such understanding is wonderful but too rare. Up until now there has been far too little published on this subject. But all that is changing. This book will be your guide to that understanding.

In 1987, my own beloved dog, Edel Meister, died very unexpectedly. But it still feels like only a few years ago. Despite my extensive training in psychology and human bereavement, my grief was intense and inconsolable. I was desolate for at least two weeks before I could make even a weak pretense at functioning normally again. Pet bereavement was little understood or respected then, except in a few small, isolated circles. I had to painfully crawl my way through the obstacles of my own intense grief and emotional debility to finally get to some perspective on what this is all about. After much time and so many tears, I was a changed person. With a lot of new research and primed by this new knowledge, I resolved to write the book that I would have wanted for myself. It is dedicated as a loving, living testament to Edel Meister’s cherished memory—and to all the other beloved pets in this world throughout history. This is the best memorial I can give him—and share with you.

I was honored that readers of earlier editions of this book asked me to form a special organization for them. Out of this, the APLB was founded. And now there are many good people who volunteer with me there to help new bereavers. They also receive a special personal sense of gratification that they are helping other bereaving pet owners who now feel all alone in their terrible grief. These wonderful workers’ lives have become positive living memorials, honoring the memories of their own deceased pets. In different ways, we are all made into better people by our beloved companion animals. We are all in this same lifeboat together.

This special book will give you what you need to help yourself through the agonizing stages of your mourning. It is offered with compassion, understanding, and care, in the trust that your loved one will inspire you to benefit from it, live on through the pain, and grow.

Wallace Sife, Ph.D.

Brooklyn, New York


The Human-Pet Bond

Everything that lives, lives not alone nor for itself.

—William Blake

Pet lovers all talk so often and knowingly about the bond because we have such a deep emotional involvement with it. Animals who become our companions quickly turn into our best friends and beloved confidants—constant supporters and even spiritual comrades. And they teach us many things. This special interrelationship plays a vital part in our lives and even becomes an element in our self-images. So let’s look at what it is all about.

The bond with a beloved pet is so potent and significant that it actually helps define who we are. It can change our lives and have such a profound effect on us that it stays even after our loved ones die. And then they become the angels of our better selves. Getting to realize that can enable us in our healing from the loss.

In trying to analyze what it is, we begin to appreciate that this bond really is a very complex psychological relationship—and a challenge to define. It is an unspoken mutual transaction that changes our lives forever. The first word associations that may come to mind are attachment, union, kinship, link, relationship, connection, commitment, loyalty, alliance, covenant. Although many of these make perfectly good sense, they still really don’t really say what the bond is. That is because we are trying to define love, and that is so difficult. Perhaps it is not even possible. So instead of struggling with a definition that has to be limited, at best, let’s look at what this is from a few perspectives, starting with a historical overview.

Faithful and Constant Companions.

Photo by W. Sife. Courtesy of Hartsdale Canine Cemetery, Inc.

In memory of a precious cat.

Photo by W. Sife. Courtesy of Abbey Glen Pet Memorial Park

The human-pet bond is not a recent phenomenon. It dates back to prehistoric times. Some early cave drawings depict dogs joining in the hunt and around the camp fire, sharing the lives of our earliest ancestors. That initial relationship was not an accident or rare occurrence but rather a natural, mutually beneficial interaction. It served both the basic needs of humans and these friendly cousins of the wolves. Humans and these new prototypes for dogs benefited from mutual protection and companionship. In addition, this chance union enhanced hunting success for both. Much later, these dogs would be trained and specially bred for herding and many other practical purposes. And they crept into our hearts.


The first dog companions were valued as friendly hunting adjuncts and reliable alarms, warning of intruders. Since human survival was a hand-to-mouth daily challenge, these semi-feral dogs were mostly left to fend for themselves but were surely thrown bones and scraps of food (even as they are today in many undeveloped countries). Those who were the best companions and hunters were selectively bred, and in time this created the first breeds of true dogs, gradually becoming even more different from their wolf ancestors.

Much later, during biblical times, pets as we consider them now were still unheard of, aside from an occasionally favored livestock animal. Most likely, a family would take an adorable lamb or kid into the house and bring it up by hand, allowing the children to play with it. But in those unforgivingly hard times, this practice had to be temporary. Animals were raised for meat and milk and hide, and even most of the favored ones eventually had to be slaughtered.

Times and people were much tougher and more primal then, and food was a family’s first concern. Shelter, reproduction, and just staying alive were always crucial, and anything else had much lower priority in each day’s struggle for survival. This pet-keeping was still so temporary and occasional that there was not even a word to define it. The times were not yet ready for our present-day concept of a companion animal who did not first serve some other vital utility or purpose. Favored household animals had to be temporary indulgences – extravagances that generally did not fit into the normal long-term scheme of harsh, daily existence at that time.

We know almost nothing about the history of cats, until they were revered in ancient Egypt as quasi-religious figures. There they were sometimes killed and mummified as part of a rite we still do not fully understand. But cats were natural predators of mice and rats. They survived and increased independently—especially around farms and granaries, where they were welcomed and appreciated. They served a vital function in the growing agrarian development of mankind. The rats and mice they hunted were hated for devouring precious grain and other foods. This was particularly important during times of poor harvest, when there was a dangerously low supply for people to eat.

It is interesting to note that, during the Middle Ages, most of Europe was caught up in a distorted religious frenzy, resulting in the burning of many thousands of women as witches. As bad as that was, cats were considered to be agents of the devil and witches who were reincarnated. Most of the cat population was killed off because of this superstitious fervor, and the Black Plague grew pandemic as a result of the now unchecked overpopulation of rats in the cities. Only much later did cats become better appreciated, when it was realized that rats and mice were the carriers of terrible diseases and epidemics. But even now in developed countries, there still are some obtuse people who hold on to this superstitious fear of cats.

A review of man’s history shows that the actual concept and word pet first came into use in the Old Northern English and Scottish languages, at about 1000 A.D. It was used for any favored animal who was domesticated (or tamed) and treated with indulgence or fondness. Indeed, it was even used for persons who were particularly dear, as it is still being done today. The practice gradually evolved and became much more common. Our modern concept of a household pet was just developing, and this coining of a new word was needed to help define it.

Nature has prescribed that very few animals have the personalities to be domesticated, and even fewer can be tamed. The first humans were hunter-gatherers. Eventually, when we began to emerge from the caves, we learned to take advantage of all the animals that could possibly be scavenged, hunted, or even cultivated for food.


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    I don't have much experience with self-help books, but this one is well written, and most of the insight is probably applicable to other kinds of loss as well. I did not read the book straight through, and skipped some chapters that were not relevant to me, or that I just didn't want to read. Other chapters, I have read every day.I bought this book the day after my sweet little black cat passed away. One of the most helpful insights of this book is the permission it gives to grieve my pet, and acknowledgement that some people won't understand why it's so hard to have lost her. The book has several pictures of memorials to pets, many of them look quite old, and I have enjoyed them at times as much as the text.This book will not heal your pain, but it will guide you to acceptance. If there are stages of grief, I think I am going through them all every day, but every day is a little less traumatic. That's as much as I could have hoped for from this book.

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