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Dealing with grief after the death of a beloved pet

Joan Hatem-Roy holds her dog, Sadie

Q: We recently lost our wonderful dachshund, Gretchen, who died at the age of 12. Our children have moved away, and some of our friends just don’t understand the scope of our loss and the role this small dog played in our lives. Do you have any suggestions about how to cope?

A: I didn’t have pets growing up and could never understand how people could be so obsessed with them. And then along came Sadie, a little mixed breed puppy given to us by close family friends.

I became like the Grinch, whose “heart grew three sizes that day,” and fell immediately in love. Sadie was my constant companion and taught us how loving and valuable pets can be.

A very smart dog, she learned many tricks, even barking “I love you.” She used her beagle side to sniff out a dropped crumb or an interesting leaf. She followed the sun as it moved over the floor of our house, so my husband and I nicknamed her Sunbeam Sadie. She provided caring and cuddling through difficult times.

Then, suddenly, this spring, Sadie died of a probable heart attack at the far-too-young age of 6 years old. Our house is quiet now, but she will always remain in our hearts.

Many people turned to pets for companionship during the long months of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the bond between people and their animal companions has always run deep. That tie extends beyond the life of the pet: think how many of us use the names and birthdates of childhood pets in passwords to the online world. Why? Because we will always remember their irreplaceable presence.

According to the Humane Society, when a pet dies, many of us navigate the same stages of grief that occur after a friend or family member passes away. Some people will react with denial, finding it hard to believe a faithful pet is not here. Some will become angry at the disease that afflicted the pet or the veterinarian who could not save it. But anger can distract from the grief that is a necessity to process.

As Lawrence native Robert Frost once wrote about surviving difficult experiences, “The only way out is through.”

Reactions vary, and so do methods of coping. The Humane Society suggests you acknowledge your loss and give yourself full permission to express it. Don’t try to go it alone; reach out to others for help and to talk about Gretchen.

Those who are fortunate enough to consider a pet a part of the family will be especially empathic, so, call them. You may be able to find a pet loss support group by asking your vet or local humane society or searching on the Internet. Many people are comforted by fashioning a memorial to their pet — interring or retaining their ashes — or by recording their feelings in a poem, short story, or essay.

The English psychiatrist Colin Murray Parkes believes “grief is the price we pay for love.” Your love for Gretchen was profound and so, correspondingly, is the depth of your sadness.

Sadie’s love was truly priceless, and we are grateful every day for the precious time we had with her. You will always have fond memories of your relationship with Gretchen, and, eventually, these will comfort you during the years ahead.

Are you struggling to care for an older adult or having difficulty locating resources? Our experienced staff is available to help. Visit us online at www.ESMV.org for more information. You can also call us at 1-800-892-0890 or email info@esmv.org. Joan Hatem-Roy is the Chief Executive Officer of Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley and North Shore.