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GriefSpeak – The Death of a Pet

Names and locations have been changed to protect the client.

By Dr. Mari Dias

Benjamin was a 60 something year-old man. When he called me for an appointment, he made it clear he only wanted one session. When he arrived, he was a large man, tall and well-built: a man who might intimidate by both his size and demeanor. Ben spoke with a clipped speech, stern, and goal oriented. He dismissed the formalities and got right down to his business at hand.

He told me his story as if he were reading the financial pages in the local newspaper.

“I am a single, retired man, no children, just my dog Captain, a seven year-old black lab. Captain slept in bed with me, traveled in my truck, and sat with pride in the passenger seat. We ate dinner, watched television and hiked together. Never kept him on a leash – he was always glued to my side.

Last week I offered to help paint a friend’s house. It was a beautiful day. I climbed up the ladder and Captain sat in the grass, a sentinel at the first rung. I remember talking to him as I painted. “It’s a great day to be alive, Captain. Look at the sky! When we’re finished, we’ll go out for a lunch and a run. Okay, buddy? Okay, Captain?” I expected a response, maybe a happy yelp or an enthusiastic bark. When I was met with silence, I looked down to see his facial expression, anticipating his wide-eyed, tail wagging response to my plan. He wasn’t there.

At that very moment I heard a loud bang, a car horn beeping incessantly and tires screeching. The driver on this quiet two lane, country road was also enjoying the day and didn’t see Captain standing in the middle of the street.

Captain died immediately upon impact. The driver apologized profusely and kept repeating “He never moved. He sat in the middle of the road and never moved. He saw me coming. He heard me coming and he NEVER MOVED!”

At the conclusion of his story, Ben locked eyes with me. He began to sob, and eventually weep, and asked me through his tears, “I am here to ask you one question. Did Captain commit suicide? All the signs seem to indicate so. I thought he was happy. I thought I gave him a good life. Maybe I was wrong.”

“If not, why did he cross the rainbow bridge at such a young age?”

Although dogs do experience depression, their survival instinct will usually be stronger. A dog’s brain functions around the same level of a 2 ½ year old child. We know that at this age children have no concept of death; there is no evidence that dogs do either (PsychologyToday.com).

I informed Ben of the research and was able to answer his question. “No, he did not commit suicide.” I can’t tell you why he chose not to move when he saw and/or heard the car coming, but he did not intentionally choose to die. As you expressed, Ben, Captain lived a content and dignified life, full of love and companionship.”

For the first and only time, Ben smiled. He stood, shook my hand and thanked me. I never heard from him again.

The death of a pet can be equivalent to the loss of a loved one. In fact, the loss of a pet may be a greater loss than that of a loved one depending on the relationship.  Bonds with our pets are very intimate, as pets are non-judgmental, provide unconditional love, and are our biggest fans. They consistently show excitement upon seeing us, licking our faces and nudge us for a touch. People report taking time out of work to grieve their pet as the loneliness can be difficult. They are part of the family. There are pet cremation urns, and pet cemeteries, and Americans spend 72.56 billion yearly (valuepenguin.com).


There is also a physiological reason for this bond. When we stroke or hug our pets, our brains release and increase oxytocin, the “feel good” hormone, and cortisol “the stress hormone”. In simple terms, pets make us feel good and reduce our stress. What is amazing is that this is reciprocal. Our pet’s brains do the same – our touch increases oxytocin and reduces their anxiety. It is a mutually beneficial relationship as anyone reading this knows.

Now go and snuggle your best friend. You are loved.

Dr. Mari Dias is a nationally board-certified counselor, holds a Fellow in Thanatology and is certified in both grief counseling and complicated grief. She is Professor of Clinical Mental Health, Master of Science program, Johnson & Wales University. Dias is the director of GracePointe Grief Center, in North Kingstown, RI.  For more information, go to:  http://gracepointegrief.com/

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