Dilemmas: Grieving for a pet

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Since Tess's dog, Bestie, died a couple of weeks ago, she is inconsolable. Her small children are sympathetic, her mother offers to get her another dog, but her husband's getting impatient and her doctor, though kind, simply can't understand. In the meantime, Tess, who cared for Bestie since he was tiny, can't stop crying. Is she odd? What can she do?

It's easy to knock people for being unsympathetic, but the cold truth is that most people get over certain sorts of deaths such as abortion, miscarriage or pet death pretty easily.

But having said this, when people do get upset over what seem to most of us to be "little deaths", they can be upset in a serious way. I have known of people who, after a much-loved pet has died, have gone into severe depression and never been able to work again.

It often seems, too, that the only way that people can be sympathetic to bereaved pet-owners is, wrongly, to anthropomorphise the relationship in the first place. They might argue that Tess is upset because the dog was her protector - which might explain why her husband is so bad tempered that she misses Bestie so much. Perhaps he always saw him as a rival. Or perhaps, because she raised him from when he was tiny, she regarded Bestie as another child. Perhaps, some others might reason, she is upset because Bestie's death reminds her of other, unresolved, losses in the past.

But few will be able to accept what is almost certainly the truth: she loved Bestie as a dog, no more nor less than that. We have a natural inclination as a meat-eating society to shy away from getting too close to animals, and I feel also that there is buried in us a kind of racist horror of what we perceive as unnatural love between humans and animals, particularly between women and male dogs. (A man weeping over the death of his mighty hound has nobility to it; a child crying over a dead goldfish is seen as displaying a charming sensibility.)

The loneliness of a pet death is compounded by the fact that so few other people had a relationship with a pet except oneself and the immediate family. If your husband dies, scores of his friends may be in tears. If your cat or your budgie dies, only you bear the brunt of the pain.

Thus the cards are stacked against Tess in the comfort stakes. So she will have to help herself. I think she should organise a funeral for Bestie. If her husband won't come, she can invite her mother, her children, and perhaps a sympathetic relative or even the vet. She would get comfort from composing a service, from choosing the readings and the songs, and ideally she should perhaps make the focus of the funeral around planting a bush or flower in Bestie's memory. She would not be the first to do this , as I found when I was researching my book on pet loss, Goodbye Dear Friend. The author Wendy Perriam arranged a funeral in her garden for her dog. Her husband built the coffin, filled with grave-goods like a marrowbone and chocolate Doggy Drops and the strains of Verdi's Dies Irae thundered over the privet hedge; a Hindu family in Blackburn even hired a hearse pulled by black horses to take their Alsatian's body to the crematorium.

A funeral would fix Bestie's death in time, it would be a tribute to a lovely dog, and, best of all, it would make Tess feel less adrift and powerless by giving her a chance to do something practical rather than sitting and mourning alone.

`Goodbye Dear Friend, Coming to Terms with Pet Loss' by Virginia Ironside (Robson Books, pounds 6.99) is published in paperback next week.

Spiritual bond in the great beyond

I pray for my dog Manny every night, commending his soul to the Great Spirit of the native Americans, and to Anubis, keeper of the otherworld and patron of dogs. I am absolutely convinced that the bond of love between humans and their animals is strong enough to survive death. We have felt Manny's presence many times. And yes, I cried when I had at last to wipe his nose-marks off the window pane where he would sit and watch for us coming home. You are not alone, dear suffering friend!

Rosemary Jarman

Welcome a new companion

I've lived this sort of situation and each time vowed never to live it again - but I always have. The greatest compliment one can pay to the deceased pet is to accept another unwanted, unloved, rescued animal into his home. It does work, I can assure you. Certainly, it will never take the place of the one you have lost, each animal has special individual and endearing ways - but while you are caring for the new addition, you are showing your love with your lost companion.

Charlotte Rae

Chippenham, Wiltshire

Pour out your feelings on paper

Write and tell him how much you miss him and why. Pour out all your feelings to him. You could then try writing the reply from him. This might seem odd until you remember how much his every look, expression and communication were part of your life. It would be the Bestie inside you who would be replying. He would surely wish to comfort you.

Gillie Bolton

Derbyshire

Walkies in the hereafter

See a good recommended spiritualist medium - and hey presto all those people and petkins you have known and who loved you will be only too glad to supply the evidence that Bestie is very much alive and cocking a leg in the hereafter.

Gerald Chara

York

A ceremony to ease the pain

A year ago my best friend, Jazz the cat, had to be put to sleep and, like Tess, I felt completely devastated. I was lucky, in that I had time to prepare for her death. Having worked for a number of years in the field of HIV and Aids, I knew how important it was to ensure that Jazz had a "good" death. I made up a booklet of photos I had taken throughout her 13 years of life and drawings people had done of her. I also wrote a poem. I gave copies of the booklet to all the friends who had been understanding during Jazz's illness. I had an excellent vet, who agreed to put her to sleep at home, and I compiled a tape of musical selections that suited my feelings for Jazz. I prepared a box with a blanket in it to lay her in, and my friend Caroline brought Jazz a single long-stemmed red rose. We lit candles, and we shared a bottle of wine with the vet. I held Jazz while she was put to sleep, and kept her in my lap all evening. Several days later she was cremated with her rose between her paws, and I planted a tree and buried her under it.

I still miss Jazz dreadfully; I no longer feel totally devastated by her loss.

Susan Bittker

Edinburgh

Sympathy on the cards

After our Jack Russell, Club, was put to sleep at home, I was so sad I felt that we should be receiving cards of sympathy. Four days later we received one from the vet; handwritten, very sympathetic and reassuring us that we had acted in Club's best interests. Knowing how much this card meant to us I shall not hesitate to send a card to anyone I know who loses a beloved pet.

Peggy Clark

Hertford

A RELUCTANT FATHER

Dear Virginia,

I'm soon to become an absent parent and it's made me bitter. My ex conceived soon after we met. From the start it was clear she wanted us to be lovers, and though I didn't rush things, when we did have sex contraception wasn't mentioned and I wrongly assumed she was on the Pill because I saw her taking what looked like the Pill but in fact it was Prozac. When she got pregnant she was thrilled, but I wasn't and this upset her and resentment has since grown from bad to awful. I'm 42, on a low income, and she, at 34, feels she has to keep the baby because it's now or never. Early in the pregnancy when I mentioned that partners usually discuss these things beforehand, her reply was: "But nothing ever happens when things get discussed." I feel increasingly angry and guilty. If I try to discuss child support she screams that I'm materialistic, saying: "It's my life and my baby." When she told her father he said she had cheated me. Does he have a point, or are we both uncaring males living in a PC age of equal responsibility in which covertly "planned-accident" pregnancies are no more?

Yours sincerely, Geoff

All comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate. Please send comments to me at the features department, the `Independent', 1 Canada Square, London, E14 5DL; fax 0171-293-2182, by Tuesday morning. And if you have any dilemmas of your own you would like to share, let me know.

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