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Dealing with pet loss

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The first thing to remember when you lose a pet is that there is no "right" or "wrong" reaction you can have to such a profound loss in your life.

You might feel full of rage or completely numb with shock or simply feel the need to cry and/or talk. All of these are completely normal reactions.

Dr. Susan Cohen, the director of counseling at the Animal Medical Center of New York, provides reassurance and advice for those struggling with pet loss.

Cohen remembers her own terrible grief as a child when she lost her longtime  cat, Becky, after 14 years of companionship.

"When my parents told me after one of my (choir) performances, I used every ounce of control I had to keep from just losing it. I hid behind the choir robes in the back of the bus and cried to myself," recalls Cohen.

The most important thing to do if you're experiencing pet loss, according to Cohen, is to find a place to let your feelings out and be heard.

"When I got back to school, I told my best friend as I was sitting in his car. I sobbed for 2 hours straight -- big gasping sobs, accompanied by the story of her life, the shock of this first big life loss, and apologies for being unable to stop. He didn't know what to say, but he listened," Cohen said.

Helping others grieve

As a lifelong animal lover, Cohen noticed her terrible sadness after the loss of every pet she ever owned as she went on to pursue a career in counseling. Surely, she thought, other people must be having the same experience.

"With pets, remorse can sneak up on you. I remember thinking that since so many veterinarians didn't have the time or training to deal with grief, wouldn't it be great if there was a social worker in this area?"

Cohen went on to become a pioneer in the field of grief therapy for pet owners. Today, from arranging pet loss support groups to private counseling at the prestigious Animal Medical Center of New York, Cohen creates resources and emotional support that can help heal the very real grief and sense of isolation pet owners feel when they lose a pet.

Different ways of grieving

According to Cohen, often family members and friends are on different timelines in the process of grieving for your pet. So, they might criticize you for the level of grief or guilt you are experiencing, which can lead to even more painful feelings of alienation. By attending a pet loss support group or seeking professional counseling, you can voice the normal range of your feelings to those who are neutral. In support groups, you might even feel relieved to meet people experiencing similar feelings, such as guilt or depression. Most importantly, all of these proactive measures will help you move through the natural grieving process involved in losing a beloved pet in your own way.

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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