Mourning a pet: It’s real

We recently assisted the fire department during a house fire. The family’s dog was temporarily boarded at the shelter while they rebuilt their life. It brought back memories of when I was in fourth grade. Tragedy struck. We had a fire in our home and lost everything. I remember it like it was yesterday.

I immediately knew something was up when the principal came to my classroom to get me. When I walked into the hall, I saw my mother waiting. Mom had that face that you would see on someone when a loved one passed away. Right then and there, she tried to explain to me what had happened. She told me we would be okay, but I didn’t hear any of it. All I could think was, “Where was Kelly?”

Kelly was our beloved red dog. She looked like a shepherd mixed with about five other types of dog. She was my best friend, my confidant, my four-legged sister. She helped me understand the world, especially during the time of my parents’ divorce. “I’m sure she’s okay,” I thought. Mom was so vague that my young brain was scared and confused.

That night, we went to a friend’s house to figure out our next step. I had lost everything. My favorite doll, all my clothing, and my home were gone, but I didn’t care. I wanted to know where Kelly was. Mom was avoiding that question. She was worried because we didn’t have a disaster plan or enough savings to pick up right away. Where were we going to live? What were we going to do? I didn’t care. “Where was Kelly?” I demanded to know.

Finally, after what seemed like hours, Mom picked up the phone to call the veterinarian’s office where the fire department had taken Kelly. As I sat there with all ears on the conversation, I heard those words that still plague me today, “Oh, she didn’t make it.”I was crushed. In fact, to this day I react viscerally when I hear anything like those miserable words. My family went on to address our immediate needs and never really spoke about our feelings or about Kelly again.

Losing Kelly was the single most difficult moment of my life for many reasons. I had never really had the opportunity to grieve her death, as my mother focused on other things. But it was important to me. Pet loss is a powerful experience for people, especially young people, and often it’s not respected by others.

While people can be sympathetic, it’s only to a point. You may hear things like, “It’s only a dog,” “Get over it already,” and “Just go get a new one.” Each person grieves differently and needs to be given the time to process a loss on their own terms and in their own time.

I was young and didn’t really understand the concept of death. My mom, like many adults, was so uncomfortable with the topic that she avoided it. There were many things she could have done to help; read an age-appropriate book about losing a pet like “The Tenth Good Thing about Barney” by Judith Viorst, or have a family funeral for the pet where everyone gets to express what the pet meant to them, drawing pictures, writing a poem or just sharing a good cry. I never did any of those for Kelly.

Nobody recognized the human-animal relationship or noticed that the connection I had with Kelly was so strong, maybe stronger, than the ones I had with some humans. Kelly taught me to care and love, and I expected her to be honored. I see this same thing every day working at an animal shelter. I see it when people turn in their animals like they are an old couch that needs to be replaced. I see it when people are cruel to an animal. I see it when people are irresponsible and neglect their pet’s basic needs. Many times, there are children in those families as well. I bet they feel like I did.

I believe my experience with Kelly’s loss made me stronger. When my family lost our beloved cat a year ago this month, I made a point to do it “right.” And, while I was not perfect, I can say we honored our kitty so that my 9-year-old could understand with respect, kindness and love.

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