When a Pet Dies : Owner's Grief for an Animal Is Usually a Lonely, Misunderstood Experience

Susan Christian is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Cats are proud to the end. So, as most of them will do, Gatita crawled off to hide to await death.

But her owner could not bear to let Gatita spend her final hours alone. "I curled up beside her on the floor, and stayed with her all night," Jeannine Mackin-Ocampo said, breaking into tears at the memory. "She always slept on the foot of my bed. I didn't want for us to be apart on her last night."

The next day Mackin-Ocampo, 31, would have to say goodby to her companion of 14 years. Old age had taken its toll; Gatita suffered irreparable kidney failure, and the veterinarian recommended euthanasia.

Pet lovers are hopeful to the end. Even though Mackin-Ocampo intellectually accepted the inevitable, emotionally she did not.

"Gatita woke up around midnight and started eating, and I thought, 'She's doing better,' " said the Costa Mesa resident. "I was praying for a sign that she'd be OK, that there would be a change for the better."

But there was no miracle.

Gatita's death last February came at an already difficult time for Mackin-Ocampo. Only weeks before, she had separated from her husband, moved from Los Angeles to Orange County and started a new job.

"My whole life was changing," she said. "I was so afraid of losing Gatita. She represented 14 years of my life. I got her when I was 18; I had her through college, I had her through several relationships, I had her through my marriage and separation. She was my stabilizing force.

"When the vet told me that I had to put her to sleep, I was very upset. But I had to go to work that week, although the cat was all that mattered to me. I couldn't call in sick--I'd just started my job, and I was still on probation," said Mackin-Ocampo, a rehabilitation therapist.

After losing her cat, she was overcome by depression--the depths of which surprised her. "My body felt tied in knots," she said. "I cried every time I touched something of Gatita's to put it away. I never realized the impact her death would have on me."

Fortunately, Mackin-Ocampo had been in counseling since the dissolution of her marriage. "I was glad that I was dealing with the loss of my husband so that it would not be magnified by the loss of my cat," she said. "Otherwise, I might have gone off the deep end."

Mackin-Ocampo's profound grief is more common than those who are less attached to animals might imagine.

"Some people have a relationship with their pets that is every bit as significant as any human relationship they have," said Danna Olson, a Carlsbad veterinarian who conducts an ongoing support group for bereaved pet lovers.

"The process of grieving a pet's death is very similar to that of grieving a family member's death; the only difference is that the intense stage of grief usually doesn't last as long."

Losing a pet can be a much more lonely experience than the loss of a relative. When a person suffers a family death, friends and co-workers react with telephone calls, flowers and cards. But that same sympathetic network often fails to grasp the trauma of a pet's death.

"People don't get the same emotional support after losing a pet," said Costa Mesa veterinarian Joel Pasco. "They're out there in limbo. They can go into a severe depression, yet friends don't take it seriously."

"If your spouse dies, you can call in sick to work and you have a lot of sympathy," said San Diego psychotherapist Lorri Greene, who co-sponsors with Olson a pet bereavement support group.

"If your cat dies and you call in sick, you're faced with a lot of snickering and, 'Oh, geez, it was only a cat--why don't you go to the pound and pick up another cat?' Your feelings are totally discounted."

Nick Vlahos didn't tell just anybody about the funeral service that his family held for its poodle, Tasha. "People would think this was a loony house," said the Anaheim Hills aerospace scientist.

He and his wife, Linda, and their two daughters read passages out of the Bible before burying Tasha in a silk-lined coffin.

"We did for Tasha whatever we would have done for a human," Vlahos said. "I loved Tasha just like I love my kids, absolutely. She was our first baby." The dog was 15 years old when she died last October; his children, Angela and Valerie, are 11 and 13.

"I cried for two months solid after Tasha died," said Linda Vlahos, a flight attendant. "Not a day goes by that I don't think about her."

Animalphiles to the core, the Vlahoses have been known to cancel vacation plans for the sake of a convalescing pet. And, as far as Nick Vlahos is concerned, four-legged creatures "can do no wrong."

"Our cat knocked pieces off Dad's marble chess set and broke them. If I had done that, I would have been grounded for a month, but he didn't even yell at the cat," said Valerie.

"When the cat jumped on the table and knocked off an expensive vase, Mr. Vlahos here said it was my fault for putting the vase in the cat's way," his wife added with a laugh.

As well as Tasha's funeral ceremony, the Vlahos' do not broadcast that they currently are spending thousands of dollars on cancer treatments for their dog, Mousee. "People would say, 'Are you crazy?' " Vlahos said. "But this is my family, and the dog is a part of it."

Mousee's veterinarian, Justin Quecke, must deal with sorrowful pet owners on a daily basis. "Ninety-nine percent of my patients are terminal," said the Anaheim veterinarian, who specializes in cancer.

Quecke constantly faces the tough task of advising clients that their pets be put to sleep. "The bottom line is the animal's quality of life," he said.

But euthanasia can cause yet another dimension of grief. "We don't (do this) to people; we don't take responsibility for letting them live or die," Olson pointed out. "So even when you've accepted that euthanasia is the decent thing to do for your pet, in your gut you feel like a rat."

"No matter how much of a blessing you know that (euthanasia) is, it's still hard," concurred Melinda Bungartz, 35, a Costa Mesa teacher. "I prayed that I would not have to make that choice."

The day before her ailing golden retriever, Ashley, was to be put to sleep, Bungartz picked up the 13-year-old dog from the animal hospital for one last night together.

"I lit a fire and slept with her in the living room," Bungartz said. "The next morning I took her by a longtime girlfriend's house and said, 'I've got somebody for you to say goodby to.' We played with Ashley for a while on the front lawn, then I took her to the vet."

Guilt--whether it be from determining to destroy the animal or from some unfounded regrets about neglect--is a common side effect of grief, according to the experts.

"I tell people not to put themselves through those horrible 'if onlys'--'if only I had run the dog more often it wouldn't have had heart problems,' 'if only I had groomed the dog more often I would have found the lump sooner and saved it from cancer,' " said Diane Kelley, a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist who specializes in pet bereavement.

Seven years after the death of her cocker spaniel, Jennifer Rebuldela still blames herself. At the age of 2, Kelly escaped the back yard and was hit by a car. He survived that incident, but one leg required amputation.

"I felt really bad, like it was my fault," said Rebuldela, 34, a personnel director in Irvine. "I could have prevented it if I had been more careful about locking the gate."

Not long afterward, Kelly died from a parasite infection unrelated to the accident. To this day, Rebuldela has not gotten another pet--partly out of self-punishment for, in her view, "irresponsibility," and partly to avoid reliving a similar tragedy.

"I'd really be sad if something like that happened again," she said. "I loved Kelly so much; even now it makes me sad to think of him."

Rebuldela recently married and, now that she feels "more settled down," is considering another pet. Still, though, her words are laced with doubt and guilt. "I just wasn't responsible enough," she reiterated --her voice trembling, as if Kelly died only yesterday.

Before Kelly's death, Rebuldela lost both her father and her brother. "My feelings (about Kelly) reminded me of that loss--how you can't get them back," she said.

"Oftentimes, the death of a pet can trigger other things," Greene said. "If you have a relative who died, the loss of a pet can bring it all up again. It's a double whammy--you're grieving not only the pet, but also the relative."

For an elderly person whose spouse has died, a once-shared pet "can be the last vestige of connection with the deceased husband or wife," Quecke said. "Frequently, they experience a strong feeling of panic."

Also, a pet is often the main source of companionship for a widowed person. "It gives them another living thing in the house," Greene said.

"Oscar was like family," Ouida Richardson, 70, said of her silky terrier who died last month. "I had a terrible time when he passed away."

Richardson's son presented her with Oscar 15 years ago, after the death of her husband. "We'd always had dogs around when my son was growing up, but this was the first dog I had to myself," said the Anaheim resident.

Occasionally, Richardson said, "I forget Oscar died. I'll go to put my feet on the floor after lying on the couch, and I'll look to see if he's in the way. Oh, my goodness, the house feels empty."

"You're not going crazy if you still hear your cat scratching at the door for a while after its death," said Greene. "That's a normal manifestation of the denial stage of grieving."

Acquiring a new animal can ease the pain of losing a tried and true animal. Bob Lay, 40, an officer with the Anaheim Police Department, welcomed another "work dog" into his house after the recent death of his German shepherd--a colleague as well as a pet.

"It helped fill the emptiness," he said. "You get very attached to these dogs. They ride with you in your car, work with you eight hours a day, go home with you. You're constantly working and playing with them. When they go, it's a big void in your life."

However, pet mourners should guard against expecting a newcomer to be a replica of the original, therapists warn. "I suggest that people get another pet only after they've gone through the grieving process and they do not see the new animal as a replacement," Kelley said.

"I had a client who went out and got an identical beagle the day after his dog died," Greene said. "But the second beagle certainly didn't have the same personality as the first; the poor dog didn't stand a chance. This person eventually took him back to the pound because he didn't measure up."

Mackin-Ocampo and Bungartz have adopted new pets, both with happy results. Bungartz's year-old puppy, Molly, is her deceased dog's great granddaughter. "It's like having a little bit of Ashley around," she said.

For those who have a friend grieving a pet's death, Olson has some advice: "Whatever you do, don't say, 'It was only an animal.' It was not 'only an animal.' It was a special animal."

DR, RICHARD MILHOLLAND

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