When Death Comes, Coping with the Loss of Your Pet

Published August 4, 2011, Pawtucket Times   

        It’s universally true. When that time comes to saying goodbye to a parent or even a loyal pet, tears flow and emotions unravel.   Many aging baby boomers, whether childless or empty nesters, have had pets who became their pampered “children” or a closest faithful companion.   

           A pet’s death, experienced by my Oak Hill neighbors, Vanessa Greenier and Larry Sullivan, a few years ago had the same emotional impact on them, like losing a parent, sibling or even their closest friend.  The grieving young couple found, like many do, that coping with this significant loss often takes a pet owner months or even years to heal.  

Intellectual Coping…Emotionally Painful

             Everybody in my neighborhood knew Winston and Isabella, the two large bulldogs who were regularly walked by Greenier and Sullivan twice a day aroundPawtucket’s Oak Hill plat.  “Hellos” were exchanged as the dog owners caught up with their neighbors while walking their “children” on their regular daily route. 

            One day,  neighbors quickly noticed that Winston came out for the daily walk, without Isabella – and something didn’t seem right. 

            Four years ago, Greenier and Sullivan had lost Isabella to liver cancer. Greenier, a Greenville-based internist, along with her partner Larry Sullivan, an Information Technologist, had provided tender loving care to their furry family Winston and Isabella for four years.   Now the couple grieved with the passing of Isabella.

            In 2007, neither Greenier, 41, nor Sullivan, 43, had ever owned a pet as a young adults or during even during their childhood years.  After five years of dating, they moved toMarbury Avenuein the City ofPawtucket, and two years later, Sullivan would push for getting a bulldog.  With Vanessa’s support, he began a search on the internet for the perfect bull dog.  He would later locate Winston, a young four month old male puppy, put up for adoption by a Georgia-based bull dog rescue group. Four months later the Oak Hill couple sought a companion for Winston, and Isabella, a newborn puppy, joined their home.

            At four years old, Isabella’s health suddenly took a turn for the worst.  “Isabella just stopped eating and in three weeks we had to put her to sleep,” said Greenier, noting that the bulldog had lost about half of her 53 pounds to liver cancer.

            Sullivan, who had cared for the ailing Isabella, took the death better than Greenier. Even though Greenier, a physician,  sees death close up on a regular basis, it was very difficult for her to see Isabella put to sleep.  “Experience allows you to intelligently cope with it, but emotionally you are still not equipped to deal with it,” she said.  .

            With Isabella’s quality of life deteriorating, Sullivan would make the decision to put their bull dog to sleep.  Greenier sat with the bull dog as the veterinarian euthanized Isabella.    Sobbing into her pet’s head, the grieving physician kept telling her bull dog that she was a “good girl,” as the pet was slowly stopped breathing. “I wanted to look her in the eyes while she was being put down so she would not alone,” she said.

             Greenier cried for a week after Isabella’s death.  “It was just a horrendous experience to go through,” she recollects. “Death and dying can have the same impact, whether it happens to your beloved pet or family member. “Love is love and it doesn’t matter if it is directed to a human being or a pet.”

            Weeks after Isabella’s untimely death, over a dozen cards had been sent to Sullivan and Greenier, even flowers from their veterinarian. The bull dogs ashes sit on a book shelf by those cards.  “People who have lost pets have given us kind words and support and really helped us get through,” Greenier added.

            Now Greenier is beginning to put the bad memories behind her and is on the mend.  Isabella’s crate is now put in the garage.  Winston is now taking the sole owner’s attention.  “The overwhelming sadness is gone, replaced by a calm remembrance,” she says.  The couple did not have to go for grief counseling but instead received support from their colleagues, family and neighbors who comforted them as they walked Winston, without Isabella.

 Death Came Suddenly and Swiftly

             The Sunday morning call from the vet delivered the news I was not prepared to hear.   “Murray’s temperature had soared to 105 degrees and his system was beginning to shut down”.  It was no longer regulating the insulin for our 13 year old diabetic Chocolate Lab  – or trying to find a remedy for his arthritis.  The doctor recommended we come down as soon as possible – forMurraywas suffering.  Just two days earlier, concern withMurray’s declining health led us to take him to our long-time veterinarian.  My wife, Patty, and I thought his sugar was just off a little bit and adjusting the amount of insulin he received twice a day would fix the urinary incontinence.  Or the pill prescribed to rid his body of arthritic pain would quickly kick in making it easier for him to walk again.  Our faithful pet, blind from cataracts, was well into his 90s, if you calculate his age in terms of human years.

          Saying goodbye to those things in life that are good does not come easy.   The tears flowed, the fond memories brought me back to the happier days – when watchingMurraychase a bouncing ball or taking an impromtu dive into theSlaterParkpond chasing the swans, put a smile on my face.  For 13 years he gave me comfort – always by my side,  and now the time had come for me to do the same for him. In the sparse examining room we approachedMurray, laying uncomfortably on top of a floor scale cushioned by an old blanket.  He was panting and his eyes fixed. .  In a matter of seconds, when I gave the vet the ‘ok’ –  he would be put out of his pain.    Patty and her son Ben, tearfully bent over, saying their goodbyes – stroking him, making sure he knew he was not alone.  With tears rolling down my cheeks it was time to end his suffering.  Calling for the lethal pink drug led to a quick lethal injection.  Within secondsMurraylay lifeless.

            On Sunday, June 5, 2011, Murray, our 13 year old Chocolate Lab, was put to sleep thru injection after the onset of sudden medical complications, resulting from his diabetes and old age.   His collar, food bowl, leash, chew toys and a few old photographs are tangible items of his existence in our family.  But memories come back to me from over the years…his backseat rides with his head hanging out the window; saying the name “Sheba”, our  neighbor’s female yellow Lab, brought him to the window to look across the street at her house; and how he warmly accepted our recent rescue dog, a younger Chocolate lab into our household.

            Murraywas cremated and shortly we will bury his ashes in his favorite stomping ground, our back yard.  Sitting outside in the cool nights of summer, Patty and I will surely remember our beloved Chocolate Lab, Murray.

            He’s the best dog and companion we have had in our five decades of living. 

Coping with Your Pet’s Death

            Greenier and Sullivan, my family, and pet owners world-wide know it’s painful to lose your pet, considered to be one of the family.  Even Abby, who walks the house wondering where her companion is, sniffing out areas around the house that still has his scent .

            Moira Anderson Allen, M.Ed., author of Coping with Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet, states that intense grief over the loss of your pet is both “normal and natural.”  While some people may not understand your strong emotional bond to your pet and pain after the pet dies, “all that matters is how you feel,” Allen says.

            According to Allen, grieving pet owners can also express their feelings and memories of their deceased pet in poems, stories and letters to the pet, Allen says. While feeling the loss, the person may feel guilt for not doing enough, denial of the death and anger at the veterinarian who failed to save the pet.  Grieving can also cause depression, too.  .

           Allen adds, “Don’t deny your pain and grief and acknowledge your feels.”  She recommends that a grieving pet owner work through feeling with family and friends, their veterinarian or ask a local human association to recommend a pet loss counsel or support group.

          For more information about pet loss, go to, the Pet Loss Support Page, at http://www.pet-loss.net/coping.shtml.

          Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.