Grief over losing a pet is as real as any grief

By Susan Anderson-Khleif

As some know, I have two kitties who brighten my days and are very sweet. They are also very smart, have learned a lot of what to do, where to go when asked, come when called, and understand lots of English.

They are over 9 years old now. That is adult for cats - but indoor cats, with the right nutrition and environment, can live into their 20s. I count on them and would be devastated if anything happened to them. They have health insurance, top-of-the-line food, play, affection, the whole nine yards.

Well, recently I was reminded of how awful the death of a dear dog or cat is. Few most people, unless it happens to them, understand the grief that ensues if a loved pet companion dies.

Lexie is a terrier. She was very pretty, sweet, smart and attached to the woman who adopted her about 11 years ago. Lexie was 2 years old when taken to her new home from the Buddy Foundation, a wonderful animal shelter for cats and dogs in Arlington Heights. This shelter is an all-volunteer, no-kill, caring place headed by Carmela Lowth. The Buddy Foundation has saved thousands of lovely pets and strays or abandoned animals. Lexie was found wandering around, abandoned and hungry, and taken there.

Lexie died about a month ago, very suddenly. She was mysteriously sick and died a few days later. She was only 13. Bright eyes, cute, affectionate, smart, very loyal. My friend's husband called Lexie "the Velcro dog" because she stuck so close to her mistress who had saved her.

While at the Buddy Foundation, Lexie had some infection and was on a medication for a while, so my friend visited her every day until she was cured. So they were already bonded by the time Lexie could go home to her new forever home.

I know something about the loss of a pet because my own sister lost two loved doggies in the same year and it was just terrible for her. And of course I have friends whose dear pets have died.

The problem is that most people, unless they have experienced this themselves, have no idea how intense grief is over the death of a beloved pet.

And worse, they say all the wrong things. As with any death, most people do not know what to say. And it's even worse with pets. People may say meaningless or even insensitive things because they truly have no idea.

So what can we do?

Well, the first thing to do, I think, is to protect yourself from well-meaning but insensitive people who say unknowingly hurtful comments about your sweet pet. And some people do say awful things such as:

• "You can get another pet." Wrong. You can someday, but there is no replacement for the one you lost.

• Even worse, someone may say, "It's only a dog/cat." Wrong! The pet is not an "it." It is a he or she with a name.

• Or people may start talking silly rational talk about facts and figures, such as the life expectancy of certain dogs or cats. Grief is an emotion, not a set of facts.

When my friend's dog died, all I said was what a beautiful and friendly dog Lexie was, and how Baheej loved it when they would stop by and say "hi" as they walked by our house.

Be aware that your friend or relative is probably hypersensitive in their grief over their dog or kitty. The usual phrases of condolence may just make the person feel worse, as in the case of Lexie.

It's better to recall a nice personal memory of the pet, or bring a photo of the pet taken at some happy event, or mention one of the pet's endearing qualities.

If you've lost a pet, protect yourself from unwanted remarks and stay away from those people for a while.

Then try these tips:

• Get out a lot of favorite photos of your sweetie and place them where you can see them. Frame them and put them where you can see them easily.

• Think about the happy times and the endearing qualities of your pet, instead of just dwelling on the death. At least do this as much as you can. Seneca (65 AD) would recommend this approach.

The point is: There is not an easy way around this grief, just as any grief. It lingers on and on. So you need to take it as easy as possible and give yourself some time to adjust and come to grips with this loss. It's a great void. It's very personal.

We must find a way to cope and manage our grief when a pet dies, just like all grief.

• Susan Anderson-Khleif of Sleepy Hollow has a doctorate in family sociology from Harvard, taught at Wellesley College and is a retired Motorola executive. Contact her at or see her blog See previous columns at

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