Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Real connections, real loss

Pet owners feel genuine bereavement when their longtime companions die; that pain shouldn't be ignored

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Anne Papadopoulos, a pet-loss counsellor, is photographed in her home with (L to R) Danny, Misha and Nikki Friday.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Anne Papadopoulos, a pet-loss counsellor, is photographed in her home with (L to R) Danny, Misha and Nikki Friday. Photo Store

This will sound odd coming from a middle-aged newspaper columnist, but I feel terrible for pop star Miley Cyrus.

I'm not a big fan of her music or her antics with foam fingers and wrecking balls, but I think I understand the pain she was feeling last week when she announced the death of her beloved dog Floyd on her Twitter account.

"I am miserable," the outrageous 21-year-old singer tweeted after the sudden passing of her Alaskan Klee Kai. "I don't wanna say it because I don't want it to be real. But my precious baby Floyd has passed away. I am broken."

Next to a photo of her kissing the blue-eyed pup, she added: "I know I don't mean it, but I wish he would've taken me with him. This is unbearable. What am I gonna do without him?"

The next day, Miley hit the stage for a concert in Boston, dedicated a song to Floyd, then gave in to her emotions halfway through. At the end of the touching tribute, the crowd roared in approval as the singer shed tears.

The truth is, you don't have to be a fan to feel Miley's pain. Anyone who has ever owned an animal can empathize with the brutal heartbreak caused by the loss of a beloved pet.

Longtime Winnipeg grief counsellor Anne Mulders Papadopoulos says our society is too quick to minimize the pain experienced by bereaved pet owners.

"It's a topic people need to be more aware of, because it's real grief and it can affect people's lives equal to, if not more than, losing a human," says Papadopoulos, a counsellor at Red River College who also donates her time to answering calls on the Winnipeg Humane Society's Pet Loss Support Line and runs support groups for bereaved pet owners at the shelter on Hurst Way.

"I've had so many people say, 'I didn't cry when my dad died, but I can't stop crying since Fluffy died.' People don't get how real the pain is. Some people do, but society as a whole tends to minimize it. I just get so tired of people who say, 'It's only a dog; it's only a cat.' "

Papadopoulos, who owns four dogs and has a private practice known as PLC Pet-Loss Counselling, recently started sending notices to city veterinary clinics to let them know the humane society's support group is there to help clients in mourning.

She said there isn't a road map to guide pet owners through the minefield of emotions, but there are some simple steps that can help people cope with the sadness.

"The most important thing is for people to know that what they're feeling is normal," she says. "No two people go through this the same way. Each relationship with a pet is different, just like with people. They all have unique personalities."

A certified counsellor for 26 years, she says it's important to draw a distinction between grief, the internal feelings a person has, and mourning, the act of sharing those feelings with others. "It's the sharing that helps people heal," she said. "They need to be able to share those feelings with other people and not be shut down."

It helps to talk with other pet owners, who understand that, for many people, pets are children, companions and trusted friends.

"Pets are life witnesses," Padadopoulos says. "There are so many people who have had a pet for years, an animal that has been with them through major life events -- the loss of a spouse, the loss of a home.

"You want to try and be around people who understand and who are going to let you talk about it over and over and over. That's what you need. There's no way around the pain; you have to go through it. You need people who understand how real the loss is. Anyone who is going to minimize it is not going to be helpful."

Step 1 in the process is the simple act of acknowledging your loss as both real and legitimate.

"You have to give yourself the time to grieve, however long that is," the counsellor says, adding it's important to give yourself permission to feel sad, to cry and to take time to deal with the overwhelming sense of loss.

Holding a simple ceremony -- a tree planting, for example -- can help bring closure. "We have funerals for people; why not for pets?" Papadopoulous says, recalling the way she marked the death of her beloved 17-year-old Skye terrier Sadie.

"I put a solar candle out in the backyard in the spot she (Sadie) loved the most," she said. "It just keeps that memory going. Every time I see it light up I get that warm feeling -- she's still in my heart."

Some clients have found comfort by creating "memory boxes," in which they store pictures of a late pet, ID tags, collars, leashes "anything that is important and has meaning and can help remember the pet in a positive way."

Papadopoulos also urges animal lovers to let themselves off the hook if they've had to make the toughest choice of all -- having a suffering pet euthanized. "A huge part of grief is guilt, especially when people have had to euthanize a pet," she notes. "It's very hard to do.

"The way I would say it is: you love this pet so much, you are willing to take on the pain of losing them so they won't suffer anymore."

To remind yourself you made the right decision, ask your vet for a copy of your pet's medical file, then look at that occasionally to prove you did everything possible.

Or sit down -- not at the computer -- and write a letter to your late pet. "Tell the pet all the pain you're feeling, if you feel guilty. No one else needs to see the letter. It can go in your memory box or you can hold a ceremony and burn it. It's another outlet for getting your feelings out."

The question she hears most: When is it time to get another pet?

"My answer is, 'When you no longer feel like you're betraying the one you lost.' They have to be ready to accept a new pet, with a new personality and new behaviours."

And maybe, just maybe, send a little love out to Miley Cyrus.

doug.speirs@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 8, 2014 D5

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