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Christine McNiff (website) was interviewed by The Cape Cod Times for the following feature article on pet loss.
 

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The mourning after
By    JOHANNA CROSBY
Published: January 19, 2003
When her silver tabby cat, Lucas, died in her arms two years ago, Lynn Cummings was grief-stricken.

"It was tragic to lose him," she says. "We had a special bond. He was like a son to me."

Besides being a beloved pet, the friendly cat was the popular mascot of Cat Country, Cummings' gift shop on Main Street, Hyannis. Her customers were saddened by his death, too. "He had his own following," she says with a smile.

Cummings had Lucas cremated with his catnip blanket and favorite toys. The day after his death, she held a wake in the store's back room. She placed his remains in a cardboard box, lit candles, and surrounded the box with photos of Lucas. Friends and customers came bearing flowers, plants and condolence cards and shared stories about the cat - an "uplifting" outpouring of sympathy that comforted Cummings.

Mourning a pet's death is a normal reaction, experts say, that has become a more publicly accepted form of grief in recent years.

Greeting card companies now offer lines of sympathy cards for pet owners. There are related books, chat rooms, counselors and support groups springing up around the country. The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement, a nonprofit organization based in Brooklyn, NY, offers peer support through its chat rooms and a registry of pet bereavement counselors. (While a few counselors are located in the Boston area, there are none currently listed on Cape Cod.)

"People truly do grieve over the loss of their pet as they would a family member" because for many owners, a pet is part of the family, says Dr. Evelyn Richer, an associate veterinarian at Veterinary Associates of Cape Cod in South Yarmouth and president of the Cape Cod Veterinary Medicine Association.

The human/animal bond has tightened in recent years, the veterinarian observes.

"Because of technology, people have become more isolated and insulated," Richer says. "Pets play a central role in our families once filled by the extended family. They offer unconditional love."

So it's no wonder that their passing creates a void in a pet owner's life.

Tears still well up in Cummings' eyes when she talks about Lucas. She keeps his ashes in a small cedar box in a corner of the back room of her store.

"I just wanted him with me," she says.

Richer tells her clients their grief is nothing to be ashamed of. "It only becomes a problem if you deny it," she says.

Often, pet owners are able to deal with the death of a pet that has been ill better than a sudden death, the veterinarian says, because they are able to anticipate the loss.

Pet bereavement has become a well-recognized area of veterinary medicine in the past 10 years. In 1996, Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton started a pet-loss support hot line manned by student volunteers from 6 to 9 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. The hot line averages three calls a week, according to student director Allison Haley.

"We are there to give them some extra support, listen to them, and help them with their grief," she says.

Most callers have lost a dog or cat. But occasionally, the hot line receives calls from bird or horse owners. Losing animals who have a longer life span may be more painful, Haley says, because the pet has been a part of a person's life longer. The hot line also gets calls from pet owners who are considering euthanasia for sick animals.

The feelings of grief triggered by the loss of a pet can be quite intense, depending on the meaning the pet had in a person's life, says Christine McNiff, a mental health counselor based in Concord. A pet may be the only companion for an elderly person who lives alone, for example, she says.

Pets offer joy and companionship so grieving over them is a "natural expression of emotion," McNiff says, because of the "tight bond" humans and their pets typically share.

McNiff, whose specialty is treating depression, anxiety, and job-related difficulties, is a lifelong animal lover and animal rescue volunteer. Bereaved pet owners started calling her because they knew she loved animals, she says. She tells them not to feel guilty about being sad or depressed, but to allow themselves to go through the grieving process.

McNiff does mostly short-term pet-bereavement counseling by phone or through e-mail and doesn't charge for her services unless it's an office visit. The majority of her callers are men. While women feel more comfortable talking about the loss of a pet, men are often reluctant to admit they're upset to others, she says, fearing they will be viewed as "less than macho." As a result, they are more at ease consulting a counselor to vent their feelings.

Experts agree that it's important for pet owners to be able to express their grief in order to heal. But it's not always easy to find sympathetic listeners.

"Sometimes people get a lot of sympathy from others and sometimes none at all," Richer says, adding that people who don't own pets often don't understand the intensity of that grief.

Richer's office sends sympathy cards to clients whose pets have died and her staff sometimes makes a follow-up phone call.

"Some pets become part of the hospital family after going through years of chemotherapy," she says.

McNiff advises clients to acknowledge their feelings and talk about their loss to others. More helpful steps include writing in a journal or posting their pet's picture on a Web site.

Memorializing a pet also can be healing, McNiff says. Some pet owners bury their pet in their backyard with favorite toys. Others choose to have the animals cremated and scatter or bury the ashes.

Another option is burial away from home. The Animal Inn, a boarding kennel and veterinary clinic in Forestdale, has a 1-acre cemetery on the property with 500 individual grave sites. A burial - which includes the plot; a sealed, fiberglass-shell casket; a marker; and perpetual care of the grave - ranges from $400 to $600.

The cemetery has a mix of animals, including cats, dogs, rabbits, turtles and parakeets, says inn manager Jim Shea. Each grave marker contains the name of the pet, birth and death dates, and sometimes a special inscription. Some families conduct a memorial service for their pets, Shea says. Many visit their pet's grave on holidays or on the anniversary of the death and bring flowers.

Experts recommend against getting another pet right away. Instead, it's best to allow yourself time to grieve, they say.

"You can't replace your pet with another animal," Haley says. "It will not be the same and it's not fair to the new pet."

Elizabeth and Neil Carr of Hyannis were distraught last July when they had to have their 12-year-old golden retriever, Tyler, euthanized after a lengthy illness. "It was terribly hard," Mrs. Carr says. "He was a member of the family."

Tyler loved to greet their visitors.

"People adored him," Mrs. Carr says, because "he was a very sweet dog." The couple received sympathy cards from friends and family and a tree to plant in their yard in Tyler's honor.

"The cards brought tears to our eyes, but they were very sweet," she says. "We can look at the tree and smile."

Recently, they were given a golden retriever. Having another dog has helped to soften their grief, but they will never forget Tyler.

"He was so special," Mrs. Carr says.

Copyright, 2003, Cape Cod Times. All Rights Reserved.

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