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Grieving an important part of healing when a loved pet dies

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D.O. McComb & Sons Tribute Center at 2307 W. Main St. recently opened a Pet Services division that specializes in memorials and cremations for animals. For more information, call 426-9494 or go to www.mccombandsons.com.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012 - 12:01 am

The death of a pet can hurt just as much as the loss of a friend or relative.

How long is it appropriate to grieve? How can one cope? These are questions many pet owners ask themselves.

Michelle Merritt and Pam George, both of Fort Wayne, are no strangers to these questions and the sadness that accompanies the loss of a furry friend.

Merritt, who lost a Siamese cat named Jewels two years ago, remembers the day she had to make the decision to euthanize her beloved cat. The cat was experiencing dementia and was too old to have tests performed.

The cat had been her faithful companion for 10 years — “a partner in crime” and a constant through break-ups, a divorce, and even a marriage. What made the parting especially painful was that Jewels was her “special pet.” Merritt had owned several pets in the past, but she felt this one was unique.

“At some point, you have to decide, 'My comfort isn't important,'” she said about the decision to euthanize her cat. She speaks highly of veterinarian Dr. Sunil Gupta of Aboite Animal Clinic, who respected her feelings and was a beacon of comfort in troubling times.

Now, a few years later, she has had time to process the loss and move on. Grief is a process which affects everyone differently, as Merritt experienced firsthand.

“There were people who acted like it wasn't a big deal,” she said. Conversely, she was pleasantly surprised by the outpouring of support from her Facebook community.

In addition to the support from friends and family, Merritt had her own coping mechanisms. She found comfort in knowing the cat was “in a better place.” She also made a conscious decision to remove the cat's toys and nostalgic items from the apartment within a reasonable amount of time.

Time heals

Like Merritt, Pam George lost a pet and part of the family in August.

The dachshund was behaving erratically one day, George said. It seems he had a stroke or heart attack. The dire circumstances called for euthanasia.

“There was no choice; I had to go ahead with that,” she said, remembering the difficult decision.

George, age 70, followed a similar approach as Merritt. The first thing she did was clean out her dog's items to avoid “continuing to see him around,” she said. She also made a keepsake photo album to help remember the good times. The fact she volunteers with animals has also helped the grieving process.

George offers words of advice for those in her shoes: “As with any loss, time heals.”

Today's advancements in the veterinary field have prompted more decisions about end-of-life care, said Dr. Stephanie Lafarge, senior director of counseling services for the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals).

Lafarge, a psychologist and expert on pet loss grief, operates a 24-hour pet loss hotline on behalf of the ASPCA (1-877-GRIEF-10, or 1-877-474-3310), taking more than 3,000 calls a year.

“There are so many options for treatment,” Lafarge said. “It's harder to know when to say, 'Enough is enough.'”

And it doesn't get any easier after that decision to put the animal down is made.

Lafarge said it's perfectly normal to feel emotional pain at this time, as humans often have a “very intense bond with an animal.” Symptoms of grief can mimic depression, but the thing that distinguishes grief from depression is a timeline.

“We are able to grieve, but you can get stuck,” she said. Lafarge offers a rule of thumb: If the depression has lasted more than a month or two, it may be time to seek professional help.

Lafarge said there's no set time when it's appropriate to get another pet. But she cautions that substitution is not always helpful.

“You need to make room in your heart and mind before you start a new relationship (with another animal),” she advised.

Pet loss and children

And that pet-owner relationship can be particularly fragile when children are involved.

Cindy Maldonado-Schaefer, director of operations at Erin's House for Grieving Children in Fort Wayne, offers some tips for handling children's grief.

It is common for children to have a lot of questions following the loss of a pet. While it may be tempting to skirt around the issue, Maldonado-Schaefer recommends a straightforward approach.

“Answer what the children ask,” she said. Don't sugarcoat, and use specific terms like “death” and “dying.”

“It's honesty. With concrete terms, they'll start to pick that up,” she explained.

A pet death can also be an educational experience to help them understand death rituals, she added.

Of course, like adults, there is a healthy dose of grief, Maldonado-Schaefer said. In her words: “They're going to have to find a new normal.”

What does that new normal look like? It may be easier to define what it isn't. Red flags for depression in children can be not eating, nightmares and trouble in school. But unlike adults, children grieve in bursts, while adults will naturally show emotion right away.

You need to know your child to recognize signs he or she is struggling with grief, Maldonado-Schaefer said.