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Sympathy Not "Automatic" Following The Death of A Pet

By Mara McGinnis

Release Date: March 2, 1998

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Pet-owners confronted with the death of a pet are forced by society to suppress their suffering, according to a University at Buffalo bereavement expert.

Thomas Frantz, Ph.D., professor and chair of the UB Department of Counseling and Educational Psychology, says the anguish caused by pet loss is largely unaccepted by a public that is uncomfortable with grief.

"Pet bereavement falls under the category of 'disenfranchised grief,' or grief that is unacknowledged by society," explains Frantz. "Most people won't offer support or allow you adequate time to heal like they would if you lost a child or spouse."

Owners who expect sympathy from others quickly learn after a pet's death that they are on their own when it comes to finding ways to cope with the loss, says Frantz, who has spent more than 30 years researching and counseling in the areas of mourning, death, dying and coping with death. Support groups for pet bereavement -- which are not always available -- are most helpful in the grieving process, he adds.

"In a group setting, pet-owners have permission to talk about their grief and don't have to worry about being laughed at or ignored," he says.

Frantz advises those mourning the death of a pet to confide in someone who is an animal lover, ideally a close friend or family member who values pets and can empathize with the loss.

Judith A. Skretny, who teaches courses on death and dying at UB as a lecturer in the Interdisciplinary Degree Programs in the Faculty of Social Sciences, recently presented a workshop in Tucson, Ariz., that explored the bond between animals and humans that makes the death of a "companion animal" a traumatic event.

Skretny, vice president of the Life Transitions Center, Inc., a grief-counseling agency in Buffalo, stresses the important differentiation between the depth of grief with "companion-animal" loss versus "pet" loss. Some pet-owners, she notes, consider their relationship with a pet one of companionship and unconditional love, while others view pets as animals only and do not share this deep psychological bond.

According to Skretny, companion animals are considered to be members of the family that interact with the entire family, are given human attributes by owners and share a bed with their owner 70 percent of the time.

"It is not only the loss through death, but the secondary losses of companionship, comfort, security and love that cause the pain of grief," she adds.

For children especially, the death of a pet can be devastating and may scare youngsters into thinking that because their pet went away, their loved ones also may go away.

Statistics show that 28 percent of adults report that their first experience with death involved the loss of a pet, when they were, on average, 8 years old.

Frantz and Skretny agree that in the case of a child who has lost a pet, it is a mistake for parents to lie and tell the child that the pet ran away, or to replace the pet too soon.

"It is an opportunity for a child to grow; parents shouldn't try to 'quick make it better,' but rather let the child develop coping mechanisms," advises Frantz. "Pain is a part of life. The most loving thing a parent can do is view and treat the child's pain as a learning experience."

One of the most difficult decisions a pet-owner often faces is whether to put the animal "to sleep," especially when children are involved.

"It is important for children over the age of 5 to be part of the decision-making process," Skretny recommends. "The entire family should be involved."

She stresses that parents should not try to hide the issue from children, but rather explain it to them in a way appropriate to their age.

Skretny encourages owners to create a memorial to the animal to acknowledge the important role the pet played in the owner's life.

Grieving pet-owners also can use the Internet to publish pet tributes on the World Wide Web, bury a pet in one of the cyber "pet" cemeteries or find out where the closest pet cemetery is located. Frantz adds that some mourning pet-owners go to expensive lengths to have deceased pets freeze-dried.

Memorial or burial services and other rituals are normal, healthy ways to say good-bye to the pet, since those faced with the loss must take an active coping role, says Frantz. "Grieving is an individual process and each person must do what they feel is necessary to ease the pain."