Healing from the Loss of a Beloved Pet
Gary Kowalski, author of Goodbye, Friend: Healing Wisdom for Anyone Who Has Ever Lost a Pet, explains why the death of a pet can be so traumatic and how to begin the healing process.
Commitment: Goodbye, Friend: Healing Wisdom for Anyone Who Has Ever Lost a Pet offers both practical and spiritual advice on how to heal following the death of a beloved animal. What inspired you to write this book?
Gary Kowalski: As a minister, I found members of my congregation coming to me for counseling when their pets died. Though attitudes are changing, the comments like “it was only a dog” or “why don’t you just get another cat?” remain all too common. There’s not much solace or support available in our culture. My own dog, Chinook, was eleven when I began writing Goodbye Friend, clearly aging, yet it was hard to imagine life without him. So the book grew out of my own experience and desire to help others, coming to terms with a loss that every animal lover eventually has to face.
Commitment: What makes the death of a pet so traumatic?
Gary: Animals touch our hearts deeply and directly with their absolute trust and unconditional love. They’re with us at intimate moments, from the moment we rise in the morning until we sleep at night. For a young person, a pet can be a four-legged confidante. For childless couples, a dog or cat becomes a surrogate son or daughter. The relationship is tactile and hands-on: grooming, giving belly rubs, and sharing affection. Companion animals are like members of our family, and when they pass out of our lives the pain can be intense.
Commitment: Why do many pet owners feel unable to express their grief over the loss of a beloved animal?
Gary: When a person dies, there’s usually a funeral or memorial service. An obituary goes in the newspaper. Sympathy cards are common. Hospitals and hospice organizations may offer grief groups for the survivors. But there’s not much ritual when a pet dies. People are left to cope pretty much on their own and can feel abandoned by the usual “helping institutions” like churches and synagogues at a traumatic period in their lives. So there aren’t established channels for mourning.
Commitment: Why do people value their pets so much?
Gary: Animals are carefree, uninhibited and full of natural grace. Unlike us, they’re not worried about their self-image or how much money is in their 401(k). They teach us to live simply and in the moment, to enjoy our inborn appetites for good food, hugging and playful exercise. As creatures of the Earth, animals remind us of our own connection to nature and its cycles of birth and renewal. They embody beauty and innocence–qualities that I associate with the holy or divine.
Commitment: In your book, you reprint “The Social Readjustment Rating Scale,” which charts the stress level of important life events. The scale includes such events as the death of a spouse, death of a close friend, change in residence and minor violations of the law, but does not include the death of a pet. Should the death of a beloved animal be included in this chart, and if so, where?
Gary: One follow-up study of individuals mourning the loss of a companion animal found that in the weeks immediately following the death, more than ninety percent of owners experienced some disruption in their sleep habits or had difficulty eating–both symptoms of clinical depression. More than half became withdrawn and avoided social activities. Almost fifty percent encountered job-related difficulties, missing from one to three days of work as a result of listlessness or low energy. All these signs suggest that the loss of a pet is serious business, with potential to adversely affect one’s health, career and other relationships. It ranks high on the list of emotional stress.
Commitment: What advice do you have for someone who has to euthanize a pet?
Gary: The word “euthanasia” literally means “good death,” and while making a deliberate decision to end a pet’s life is always difficult, it is often an act of kindness, insuring that the last hours we share with our friends are tranquil rather than fearful or tormented. More and more people are making the decision to die at home, in familiar surroundings rather than in the hospital, with palliative care to ease the suffering even when pain-killing drugs foreshorten the span of life. With more and more vets making house-calls, we can give our animal companions a similar option.
Commitment: How can adults help a child cope with the loss of a beloved pet?
Gary: Be gentle but truthful with your children, who in primary grades don’t have the intellectual development to understand the concept of death’s finality, but who experience the full range of emotions that affect adults–anger, guilt, sorrow, and confusion. Avoid euphemisms. Saying your pet “went to sleep,” for example, may instill an morbid anxiety about bedtime. Whenever possible, stick to the facts. Explain that when a pet dies, it no longer sees, hears or feels anything. It doesn’t move but isn’t suffering. Find ways to remember and celebrate your pet’s life: draw a picture or make a poster. Inform teachers and guidance counselors who can also provide sympathy to your hurting child. You can share your uncertainties, as well as what you know or surmise about death, but honest questions deserve honest answers.
Commitment: How does finding a suitable resting place for an animal companion help the grieving process?
Gary: People have been burying their animals in special places for thousands of years. Near the Great Pyramid in Egypt, the Pharoah erected an inscribed stone marker for his favorite hound, who was interred with pomp and ceremony. The grave sites we choose for our pets are less monumental. But knowing that a friend’s remains are buried near a favorite tree, or the ashes scattered along a familiar trail—placed lovingly into the soil with our own hands–can help us find closure. The body is undeniably gone, but the spirit remains. We can visit the place in memory as often as we like.
Commitment: You end your book with a section of readings and poems which may be read at a memorial service for a pet. How does a memorial service help one mourn the loss of a beloved animal?
Gary: Memorials serve several functions. They’re an opportunity to grieve, for tears are inevitable. They’re also an occasion to put hard-to-express feelings into words, to say “thank you,” “I love you,” and reflect on the good years we were blessed to share. A memorial is a time to pause in the presence of the great mysteries of birth and death that punctuate our time here, to recall that life is not only brief but also precious beyond measure. Poetry–from the Psalms to Shakespeare to Mary Oliver–is language that speaks to our universal human condition: mortal but also capable of passions and loyalties that are stronger than death.
Gary Kowalski is the author of best selling books on animals, nature, history and spirituality. His titles have been translated into French, German, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese and Czech, been featured as “Reader’s Favorites” in the Quality Paperback and One Spirit Book Clubs, and sold well over 100,000 copies worldwide. His works include:
The Souls of Animals (New World Library)
Goodbye Friend: Healing Wisdom For Anyone Who Has Ever Lost A Pet (New World Library)
The Bible According To Noah: Theology As If Animals Mattered (Lantern Books)
Science and the Search for God (Lantern Books)
Revolutionary Spirits: The Enlightened Faith of America’s Founding Fathers (BlueBridge Publishing)
Earth Day: An Alphabet Book (Skinner House Books)
A graduate of Harvard College, where he studied history, Gary also holds a master’s degree from the Harvard Divinity School, where he prepared for the ministry. Reverend Kowalski currently serves as senior minister to the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Burlington, Vermont.
To purchase Goodbye, Friend: Healing Wisdom for Anyone Who has Ever Lost a Pet, click here.