Grieving the death of a pet: How to cope

Mar 27, 2012

Post editor Joe Yonan was surprised to discover the intensity of the grief he felt when his dog Red passed away four months ago. Yonan will be online at 12:30 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, March 27 to answer your questions about his story. He'll be joined by Sandra Barker, the director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University. Barker counsels grieving pet owners and teaches veterinary students the importance of understanding the process.

Hi, all. Welcome to today's chat. We're talking about the loss of a pet and how the grieving process works. I wrote about my experience losing my beloved Doberman, Red, in today's Health section, and talked to experts such as our other guest today, Sandra Barker of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction. We're here to take any of your questions or comments about the story and/or the issue of pet grief, so fire away.

I put my cat to sleep about 3 weeks ago (had him for almost 16 years, from when he was 7 weeks old), and sometimes I feel like he's slipping away from me, that I'm not remembering him enough. Then other times I'm overwhelmed with missing him and obsessing about whether I handled the final procedure correctly. And I think that if I started to grieve, I'd just never stop crying. I feel that people don't want to talk about this - hey, it was just a cat, get over it, or they have their own pets and the conversation scares them. I know this is all over the place, but that's my head these days. What do you think I should do?

I am very sorry for your loss. You have touched on so many aspects of grief. The grief process can often seem like a roller coaster as we get in touch with intense emotions at times and at other times feel numb or remember amusing things our pets did.   It is unfortunate that people around you don't understand the special bond you had with your cat and how painful it is to lose him. It can be helpful to talk with others who understand and can be supportive.  If you don't have an understanding family member or friend, you may find it helpful to talk with a counselor or join  a support group.  Or like Joe, you can write about your experiences, or draw, play music, whatever expressive avenue seems to fit for you.

I have to add that as scary as it might be, I think you have to jump in and start to grieve -- even wallow in it to an extent -- in order to get through it. I agree with Sandra that finding people to talk about it to is crucial. My conversations with some of my closest friends and family, as blubbery as I was, were helpful not necessarily because of anything they said -- mostly, they just listened -- but because I got to express something.

In my experience, the sudden loss of a beloved pet is so much worse than that of a pet whose loss is expected sometime soon, because the "sometime soon" can be so abstract and each extra day can become a little gift. But the sudden loss is so harsh and shocking. Either way, though, the holes that are ripped into our lives by their absence are not easily healed. While it has been true for me that allowing another pet to wriggle into my life, when the time has been as right as it can be, has made my grief and sorrow a little easier, there is never a replacement for the one lost. Wish the well-meaning folks who are not bonded to their pets (or don't have pets) could understand that.

The experiences of my pet loss clients, as well as my own experiences, reflect that as well. That sudden death gives us no time to prepare for the loss of our pets, no time to say good-bye,  have that last special meal or walk, or come to terms with the terminal condition of our pets. In addition to the pain of our pet's sudden death, we also have to deal with the shock of the untimeliness. It can certainly contribute to the intensity of the grief process.

Indeed, this idea of when to get another pet is a very personal thing. As I wrote, it can be very difficult to hear the suggestion, if it's too soon, as well meaning as it might be. (My mother keeps asking me, and it's driving me a little crazy.) But I also know that loving another animal can absolutely help. I think each relationship with a pet is different, and I do look forward to having the next one(s).

My cat has severe, recurring congestive heart failure and I have been told many times for more than a year by vets that the end is very near. Yet he still seems fine and takes his meds well. I know this can't last forever, but how do I know when is the right time to let him go? I don't want him to suffer unnecessarily, but don't want to end his life prematurely either. People (not the vet) tell me I need to just put him to sleep, but how could I possibly do that if he seems happy? I feel like I'm waiting for him to seem like he's suffering, but obviously I don't want that either.

This is such a difficult decision to make. You know your cat better than anyone and the decision should be made by you in consultation with your vet. Many of my clients have found it helpful to come up with a list of criteria that will help them know when it is time to euthanize a pet. It might be when a cat is no longer interested in eating or drinking, when it has difficulty breathing, when it cannot control elimination, etc. These criteria are best made in consultation with your veterinarian who knows your cat's medical condition and can help you develop an informed list that makes sense for you and your beloved cat. 

To me, this is the hardest thing about euthanizing a pet. When Gromit was diagnosed with cancer ("riddled," the vet said at the time), he seemed fine. I couldn't put him down then. It was only a couple of weeks later that he took a turn, and his energy flagged, and, I don't know, something about the look in his eye told me it was time. Recently, a good friend had to face such a decision with his dog, Nugget, and it went for a couple of months, with the pooch energetic and the like and my friend unable to make the call because of that. Eventually, there came a day when he could tell that Nugget's quality of life was suffering. It's a difficult call to make. I agree with Sandra that you should be in consultation with a vet about this, of course. Since our pets can't speak to us -- and can sometimes be very stoic -- you have to try to use your best judgment.

Obviously not a question, just wanted to share my story - We have always had dogs in our 40 years of marriage and suffered many deaths. But when our beloved border collie Bogey was stolen, there was no closure. It's been 6 years and I still cry when I think of him or see another border collie. Not knowing what happened to him will always haunt us. A couple of years later a jack russell came running into our yard like he had known us forever. We tried to find his home but didn't. Someone said that maybe Bogey had sent him to bring us joy and, boy, has he!!!! At present, we have 3 dogs, one of which is 17 and has great difficulty walking. We know what lies ahead but we will focus on the good times.  All of the others will forever be in our hearts, but especially Bogey.

I'm glad that Jack Russell found you. It is agonizing to not  know what happened to a beloved pet who is stolen or otherwise turns up missing. You echo what many of my pet loss clients have said over the years: there's just no closure. You keep expecting, hoping Bogie will show up.  Stories in the media of miracle reunions of lost pets who travel many miles and manage to return can also serve to keep that hope alive. 

Oh, that's just terrible about Bogey. I'm so sorry. My sister and brother-in-law lost a cat right when I was arriving here in Maine in January, fresh with my own grief. Jenny went out and never came back -- and the assumption is, given that we're in a wooded area, that she was taken by a fisher cat or some other predator, and that thankfully it went quickly. But to not know is terrible.

Joe - Thank you for sharing your grief with us. I hope it helped you as it helped me to read about another person's feelings toward their pets. I was wondering if you have a favorite story about Red that you might share with us? He was a gorgeous boy!

He was a beauty, it's true. Well, one thing he would do all the time is whine if somebody came over and dared to sit with me on the couch. It wasn't that there wasn't room for him, too, but he liked to stretch out, and to have me all to himself, so that he could put his head in my lap, or, if he were facing the other way, to rest his feet/legs against me -- and kick me like a rabbit or, given his size, more like a kangaroo every few minutes.

Being a single woman, I take care of my pets like they are close companions and my children. I am certain my dogs have taken on more human-like characteristics the more I treat them like little humans. Is there a word for this phenomenon?

You are certainly not alone in caring for your pets like they are children. There is a word for attributing human-like characteristics to animals: anthropomorphizing.

You might be interested in a book I read recently: "One Nation Under Dog," by Michael Schaffer. He chronicles our changing relationship with animals, and it's a very sympathetic portrayal of the relationship. He brings a reporter's investigative powers, of course -- examining what it means for us to treat pets as children (hiring trainers, GPS chips, antidepressants, pet spas, etc.) -- but it's nuanced and illuminating. The chapter on pet death is worth the price of the book alone.

I've never even owned a dog or cat but the small pets I have had - hamsters and parakeets - have left me in shambles when they pass on. I've found that vets who take my small pets seriously really make the whole experience easier. They've offered to press their paw/claw for prints like they do for bigger animals and they send sympathy cards after. It makes my pain feel so legitimate. (Fantastic article, Joe!!)

How fortunate you have been to have such positive veterinary experiences. An understanding, compassionate veterinarian can make a big difference in the grief experienced by pet owners. Providing initial support, communicating understanding of how difficult your pet's death is for you, clearly explaining the pet's condition and the euthanasia process, and treating you and your pet with dignity and compassion can be so helpful during this difficult time.

I love the thought of a teensy little paw print to help you remember the little critters. I have to say, having that fantastic drawing of Red by Eamonn Donnelly has also helped tremendously. Friends gave me a painting of Gromit while he was still young, and I've loved having that one, too.

I have had to put two pets down and found it the most difficult thing I have ever had to do. The hardest aspects for me are being responsible for making the decision and agonizing if it is the right time. Is that a common feeling among pet owners?

Yes it is very common. It is so difficult to end a beloved pet's life, but knowing you are able to end your pet's suffering can provide some comfort.

If only they could talk to us, right? Or sign forms stating their intentions! 

Thanks for the article, Joe. As I tell my friends, I have done a very bad job of pet succession planning in that I have three cats who will turn 13 this year. One has had some health scares in the past fews months and so I have begun to anticipate the inevitable. I hope it is appropriate to ask this question, but what does one do if a pet dies at home? What if your vet doesn't open until the morning? It might sound morbid, but advance planning always help me at times of grief and stress. Thank you.

An excellent question. You may want to talk with your veterinarian in advance to put a plan in place should your pet die at home. You may have an emergency veterinary clinic, open 24 hours, that may assist in keepiing your pet's body until your veterinarian's office opens the next day.

Thanks for this article. It is quite timely, as my 13.5 year old cat just passed away last weekend. As we were a family, along with his surviving brother, for all of those years, I held a night of Shiva last night (a Jewish mourning tradition) in his honor. Many of my friends came to celebrate an awesome cat, but more so to support me. It meant a lot to me to have my grief validated and I KNOW having people in my life who understand the human-pet bond will help in my healing process. Thanks for sharing your experiences and here's to all those fabulous animals we are lucky to share our lives with for however long we get them.

Thanks so much for sharing this. Your story proves the value of ritual to help with grief. When I get Red's headstone and we bury his ashes, I imagine some ceremony will be in order, too. That will help.

Dr. Barker, have you counseled practicing vets? I know they can become attached to long-time patients, and it can be heartbreaking to euthanize them. Years ago, my vet told me that my cat was their fourth euthaniasia of the day and he and his staff were grief-stricken. I would imagine that sometimes vets can't help but second-guess their course of treatment or advice to pet owners.  On top of that, pet owners will often change vets for their remaining pets because of their grief.

Yes, I do counsel practicing vets. You are correct that handling euthanasia can be very stressful for veterinarians and their staff. It can contribute to burnout and leaving the profession.  Like human healthcare providers, veterinarians experience compassion fatigue, which has been referred to as "the cost of caring".

I can only imagine how such a thing would affect vets. Mine, by the way, was absolutely amazing in her reaction to Red's death. The whole office was devastated, because it was so shocking, and because they knew him and all got such a kick out of him. My friend who recently had to put down his dog, Nugget, had nothing but praise for the vet who came to his house to euthanize the pooch. Said she was very gentle and soothing to everyone.

My cat of 10 years died this past Friday. I knew she was going downhill the last couple weeks (Cushing's due to pituitary tumor), but it still felt sudden when I arrived home from work and she had apparently experienced a seizure or stroke and lay unconscious on the floor. Similar to Joe, that image often comes to my mind and I feel guilty that I wasn't there with her. I live by myself and I've been trying to allow for grieving time which came heavily over the weekend, intermittently since. Any further suggestions or things to consider, attend to, or be careful of? Thanks for your article, Joe. It was obviously VERY timely for me.

One of my dogs died recently of the same condition and it is heart-wrenching. It may help to remind yourself that, if you had known she was going to die, you would have stayed with her. But you probably could not have known. Accepting that you did the best you could with what you knew at the time may take some time. Be kind to yourself and recognize all that you did do for your cat.

Oh, I feel for you. I've been just overcome by guilt that I wasn't there with Red. In fact, more than any other aspect of this loss, it's that thought that will get me sobbing the quickest. I just keep thinking that if I had been there, he wouldn't have been as panicked or confused, that my smell would have comforted him. But as Sandra says, there was really no way I could have known -- nor could you. And you can take comfort in the fact that the seizure or stroke must have come on very quickly, so her suffering would have been minimal.

And try to put that awful image out of your mind and replace it with other, happier ones. I had a pretty major setback a month after Red died when I was on a plane paging through my iPhone photos out of boredom and came upon ones I had stupidly shot of his body on my bedroom floor. I thought I was going through PTSD right there on the plane. When I landed, I handed the phone to a friend and asked her to delete them.

Since then it has helped me to look at other, much happier photos and, of course, to have the new drawing.

I am sorry for your loss. We find ourselves in a situation where we know we will lose our dog in the next few months. Do you suggest any ways to help the healing now or get prepared for this? Thanks

Just accepting the fact that the time is coming and allowing yourself to feel the sadness of knowing you don't have much longer can be helpful. It's called preparatory grief. Do what you can now for your dog that will make you feel better after s/he is gone - provide a favorite meal, go to a favorite place, etc. You can also start writing about your thoughts and feelings.

My little fuzzbutt just turned one yesterday... he's a high maintenance Bichon mix who thinks that 6AM is wake up time on weekends and that now that we are starting to not crate him at night means that we really really want to play in the middle of night and isn't shy about waking us up. Still he's my puppy and despite the times he drives me up and down a wall, I can't imagine not having him around. Thank you for sharing your experience.

You're welcome. Cherish these times!

At 72, I have lost several much loved dogs and cats and grieved for each. I have also lost my only child to pancreatic cancer. My advice is to honor your pet's life and your grief, but please put it in some perspective.

Thanks for your thoughts. Everybody's grief is different, and in no way was I trying to say that everybody should grieve more for a pet than they do for a family member. I'm sure that if I lost a child, I would be devastated, surely more so than from losing a dog. But I haven't, so I was comparing this grief to what I have experienced -- indeed, putting it in perspective. We all must respect one another's unique processes, and what I was trying to do was illuminate what it is about losing a pet that makes it so difficult.

I am so sorry for your losses. The loss of a child is devastating and it is hard to understand that someone can feel such intense attachment and grief for a pet.  Yet people develop different attachments for many complex reasons and some of my clients have expressed guilt over the loss of a pet that impacted them more than the loss of a parent or child.  Their perspectives are  different, but their grief is legitimate.

As a pet owner, I understand how intense the feelings are for the pet owners. I think non-pet owners can't get it. A lady I know got her puppy when she turned 18. This small dog lived almost twenty years. At age 38, this woman has had this dog through her marriage, the birth of a child, the divorce, the life of a teenager, the empty nest, the death of grandparents and parents and all of her adult life. This lady's best days and worst days were with this dog. No other living being had shared her life like this dog. The one and only constant being in her life for two decades was now gone. Her grief was profound and real because a lifelong companion who asked for nothing, never judged, and gave everything is gone. Yeah, you get sad because a twenty-year friendship and relationship is over.

And her grief is not just for the loss of her dog, but also for the loss of all of these unique life experiences she shared with her dog. It makes sense she would grieve so profoundly.

Absolutely, that makes perfect sense. I was a little worried in writing this piece that some people might misunderstand, that I was saying that dogs are better than people, or somehow more important than even our own family. And in the flood of almost all positive comments on the story, there were a couple that said just that. But I think they missed the point, which is about how some of the unique things about our relationships with dogs -- the constancy, the dependency, the nonjudgmental nature -- and about how society reacts when we lose a pet tend to complicate the grieving process in a way that doesn't always happen when we lose a family member.

Hi, Joe, I read your story last night and bawled my eyes out. My 13-year-old dog was in her usual place at my feet, and I was crying when I think about the inevitable life without her. She is such a part of my everyday life. And that's what you hit on in your story. Our pets are with us all the time. That's why we feel their loss so intently. There is no period of separation or growing apart. They're just gone one day. I wanted to say a huge thank you for sharing your story.

That constancy is what we love so much about them, and it's one of the main reasons it's so hard to lose them, absolutely. You're welcome.

Are there any local support groups or organizations to help work out the grief for the loss of a pet?

Yes, some areas have pet loss support groups. You may want to conduct an internet search for your area. Usually veterinarians are aware of local groups so you may want to check with them as well.

The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement, among others, keeps a list of support groups. Here's the list for Virginia; note that my other great source for this story, Kathy Reiter, leads groups in Alexandria and Fairfax.

Oh Joe, I am so sorry for your loss. I couldn't finish your piece without crying! I have three cats who are my children. They are my first animal companions and I know I will be a wreck when they leave me. I agree with your article that because they are our dependents, we have a unique bond with our animals. Whether people admit it or not, we treat them like children--feed, play, bathe, nurse back to health--stuff we don't need to do in our other relationships. Hugs for Consuela. Hopefully you can console each other during this difficult time.

It's true, having Consuela around has been a big help -- as has my siter and brother-in-law's amazing dog, Maya, with whom I'm fairly smitten.

When my son decided, after nearly 7 months of round the clock care, to have his beloved 17-1/2 year old cat put to sleep, it was a tough decision but the best one for that irascible feline!! Later in the day, my son held a wake at a local neighborhood pub and friends joined him and shared in their memories of this cat he received as a 9th birthday gift. Not too long afterwards, he had a tattoo of the cat on his arm!! Talk about devotion!

And such a beautiful tribute to a very special relationship. Thank you for sharing that lovely story.

So great. I came THISCLOSE to having a tattoo of Gromit done -- would've been  my first and only tattoo -- but by the time I found the artist, and started talking schedule, I had met Mister Red, and got a little distracted from the plan. Maybe now I'll get both of em done!

I haven't experienced losing my pet yet, as he is only 2 yrs old, but I believe when my chocolate lab, Chief passes on, I would not want to get another pet only because I feel it would make me always compare the new dog with Chief. How do you feel about this? Do you feel its best to replace your lost pet with another quickly or eventually?

I'm sure Sandra has thoughts on this, but I think it's a very personal decision, and it varies from person to person, making it very hard to generalize. For me, I knew I was ready to think about adopting another dog when seeing other people's dogs didn't make me think only about Gromit, if that makes sense. 

By the way, I got an email from a friend who liked the piece and who related this:

[My husband] and my reactions to D's death were completely different. He couldn't think of getting another dog, he was so heartbroken. Whereas, I wanted two .... fast. Not to replace her of course but to fill the void.

As Joe said, this is a very personal decision, but you can never truly "replace" a pet. There will never be another one with the exact same temerament, behaviors, attitudes, etc., even if they are the same breed and color. I have had some clients who tried to replace a deceased pet by getting another and it rarely works out well. Typically the owner becomes disappointed when the new pet is not as smart, cute, attentive, etc. as the one they are trying to replace. Some have returned them when they started growing too big, or weren't as affectionate as the deceased pet. I recommend getting a new pet when you are ready to form a new relationship with a pet, which is typically when you have allowed yourself time to grieve for the pet that has died.

Joe- I sobbed as I read of your losses of both Gromit and Red. I too came home one day to find my Rio dead of unknown causes. Seven years later I was present when the vet put Billy to sleep. I felt such guilt that I couldn't be there for Rio, and although I was devastated to say goodbye to my Billy, it was a blessing to be able to tell him "thank you."  Thank you for your thoughtful words and I wish you the best as you process your grief.

I'm so sorry for your own losses, and thanks for sharing your thoughts. You know, as I now do, what a difference it can make to be so shocked and not have time to prepare for the goodbye.

I often think about my dog's last moments as we put her down. I can't get the images out of my head. I would never for a second consider her going through that on her own without me, but then those moments are indelibly marked in my head and those are the first memories I have of her before I remember the rest of the wonderful years we had with her. Any suggestions on how to move past that? It's been two years since we had to put her down. Thanks.

I've had the same problem, both times. With Gromit, I couldn't stop thinking about that moment when I was holding him and the vet gave him the shot. And with Red, of course, it was the image of him lying on the floor. I'm not sure what the secret is, but I have two thoughts: One is to share the image in some way. That is, to talk about it -- with someone else who was there, or with someone who wasn't if you were alone. Because I think the more you think it can't be discussed, the more it will haunt you. Secondly, as I said to another chatter, expose yourself to as many photos of your pooch in happier, healthier times as you possibly can, and talk about those, too. Talk about those more, and more. With time, they will rise to take prominence in your memory.

I had an extraordinary moment when I had to put my kitten to sleep. He had developed FIP, a fatal disease, so it wasn't a matter of "if", it was a matter of "when." My decision came when he no longer wanted to lick rice pudding off a spoon or even take water. When I offered, he looked at me like, "Please don't." I had promised him (yes, out loud) that when he was ready I would take him. That night before the final vet visit, I woke up to find him watching me. As sick as he was, there was a look of tenderness, gratitude, and wisdom unnerving to see in such a young cat. My point is, your human logic will ultimately give way to your heart's intuition if you let it. They do tell you when they're ready--you just have to be very still and listen. And I know it sounds crazy, but they are GRATEFUL. They know. Animals just know.

You know, I agree. I had the same experience with Gromit. I had agonized about making sure I would know when the time was right, and there was just this point, and he looked at me just like your kitten did, and I just knew. 

If you have a multi-pet household and you lose one, how do you help your other four-legged friend cope with the loss?

This can be difficult for the owner who is also grieving, but also healing in helping other pets adjust. Giving the other pets more individual attention for a while can be helpful. They may be confused about the absence of the deceased pet.  If there is one dog remaining, you may want to consider going to a dog park more frequently to provide some socialization. For any behavioral change, I always suggest consulting with your veterinarian.

When Gromit died, Consuela stopped eating, and almost died herself. It was a clear expression of her shock and grief. They were very close, having been adopted by me within weeks of each other as babies. She had had exactly zero health problems up until then, but she needed emergency care, and then I had to nurse her back to health, feeding her by hand, etc., until she recovered. And then she was fine. I think in a way she also wanted to remind me that she needed my attention, too. Incidentally, she doesn't seem to be too upset about Red's passing, but their relationship was a little more fractured.

We're a family of dog lovers, we have always had dogs (mostly herding breeds) and always will. My children were raised with dogs, a few cats and various other pets and farmyard animals. One Sunday, my then 10 year-old daughter went with a friend to her church. One of the church elders kindly explained to my daughter what their religion believed. When he told her about heaven she asked if dogs go there when they die. He said no, only humans go to heaven. My daughter came home in a huff and said she would never go back to that church because they won't let dogs into heaven! She was absolutely indignant about it. Remembering this story always brings a smile to my face. All our dogs are angels.

P.S. All the Dobermans I have known were big sweethearts.

If you're ever nearby, you should go to Stephen Huneck's Dog Chapel in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Your daughter would absolutely love it there, for reasons that you'll immediately realize.

Joe, perhaps Red wanted to spare you the sadness of seeing him have his seizure and die, so he went on his own time and on his own terms. Unconditional love to the very end. My condolences on your loss.

Actually, Kathy Reiter said the same thing. (Maybe you have a future in pet-grief counseling!) She said she has heard numerous clients say their pets seemed to wait until they weren't around before they died. I'm not sure that's what happened here -- since it was so sudden -- but it's a sweet way of thinking about it. Thanks.

When our dog died within a week after we moved cross-country, we were pleasantly surprised to receive several emails from former neighbors letting us know what a great, kind dog they thought he was. It meant more to use than they will ever know.

Yes, it can be amazingly comforting when people reach out to tell you not only that they feel sorry for you because of your loss, but that they are sad about losing the pooch, too. Plenty of my friends had been touched by both Gromit and Red and told me so. I had the same dog walker (actually dog day-trip leader!) for both pooches, and I think he was as upset as I was. Just devastated. Another friend who watched Red frequently said she cried for two days straight after he died. And I got lots of condolences from people who knew him -- more, even, than they knew me -- from the dog park. It does help.

Another part of the difficulty of losing a pet is that you feel that your pet does not understand what is happening and you are helpless to make your pet feel better. You just have to stand by while the process of dying begins. To add to what has been discussed about getting another pet: Someone once told me that the reason our pets don't live as long is so that we can have more of them. I've always rescued another right away and I've found that it helps me with my grief by helping another (pet) get over theirs. The rescued animals have a history of grief as well. Then, we both get to know each other and another love relationship begins.

What a beautiful idea.  Volunteering with a rescue group myself, I agree with positive impact it can make in their lives and ours.

I'm a big believer in adopting rescue dogs, definitely. It  helped me to act as a foster dad to Red on a few nights and weekends before adopting him. He had a history of grief himself, definitely.

I have been pondering this issue and think one of the reasons losing a pet can be tougher than a family member is that the love between you and the pet is unclouded. There is no baggage, no issues, no other emotions. It is just pure love. I lost my cat of 11.5 years, suddenly, in January, and it still hurts. I had been asking myself recently what my problem was and why I was being so stupid over this. Your article helped me a great deal. Thank you.

Pure. That's the thing.

Hi, my cat went missing several weeks ago while I was traveling for work and she was being watched by very good friends we used to live with. Signs, Craigslist ads and phone calls to shelters were made, as well as regular searching through the area, to no avail. Should I start grieving her loss (to me, at least, hopefully she's found a new family)? I miss her, but I still don't feel like she's truly gone.

This is such a difficult question. I'd suggest getting to a support group to help you process.

I just want to thank you for the beautiful article and offer my condolences. I got my first dog 5 years ago and I am 69! I can't believe how much I love this little critter. Though I was once one of them, I now get upset when people don't understand how much "just a dog" can add to your life. I totally dread the thought of the inevitable and hope it is a long time coming. Thanks again.

There's no such thing as "just" a dog, is there? Glad to hear from you, and appreciate the thoughts.

My English Bulldog died last week while pregnant with five pups. Without going into all the details/complications, she passed when I left to take out the trash and walk the block to clear my head. I was so grief stricken that she died alone, wondered if she was just waiting for me to leave the house, and if this was her final act of unselfish love. I asked the vet this question and she said it's more common in cats than dogs to leave/seek isolation when they sense they are dying. No one should die alone. I'm not one for seeking false comforts or creating my own reality to suit my needs. But I can't bare the thought of her needing me in her final moments.

I am so sorry for your loss. Your guilt and pain are palpable. You never would have taken that walk had you known she was going to die. If only they could talk to us and tell us what is going on.

My 19 year old cat died 2 years ago and I would like to adopt another. However, it is a big commitment. Suggestions on how best to determine if you are ready for a pet again?

Pet ownership is a big commitment, and having had a pet for 19 years, you know the responsibility. I think you will know when you are ready to form a new relationship and accept another pet into your family. I must go now. Thank you for the excellent questions and comments.

We're out of time, everybody -- thanks so much for your questions. I hope you found our perspective helpful. If you are trying to recover from the loss of a pet, best wishes with your own process. Hopefully you'll get support and can go through it, however difficult it may be. If you are still enjoying the companionship of an animal, give him or her a scratch behind the ears right now!

In This Chat
Joe Yonan
Joe Yonan is the editor of the Food section, where he also writes occasional feature stories and the monthly Cooking for One column. He is the author of "Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One," which will be published in spring 2011.
Sandra Barker
Sandra Barker is the director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University.
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