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Amy Johnson Dec 31, 2009

Should old acquaintance be forgot?

Auld Lang Syne
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind ?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne ?
For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we'll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

He was only six years old when he died. My husband and I had taken our shih tzu, Tobey, for a walk. After being spooked by something unknown to us, he managed to twist his head and body enough to slip out of his collar and run into the street. Despite my best efforts to stand in the middle of the road, begging the driver to stop, it was too late. The car halted but not before his front tires made contact with Tobey’s small body. The driver took off without so much as a backward glance. I started toward home, carrying Tobey and pleading with him to stay with us, but before we got there, I felt his body go limp.

That was over two years ago and it still hurts my heart. The grieving process was long and arduous. The most difficult part was the feeling that the intense pain I experienced was not warranted. After all, he was “just a dog.” But I am not alone. There are nearly 75 million dog owners and more than 88 million cat owners in the U.S. ( A 1991 study of pet owners on the impact of loss of pets reported that over half of the women and one quarter of the men reported feeling extremely distressed by the loss of their pets.

For some, the loss of a companion animal can be equally or more devastating than the loss of a significant human relationship. The social dynamics between people and pets consist of qualities much like those of human social bonds. The human-animal bond involves an emotional attachment to a furry friend and sincere feelings of affection. Bowlby posited that the purpose of attachment is to “maintain an affectional bond and provide a sense of safety and security. Any relationship can become an attachment relationship if it fulfills that need for safety and security” (Sharkin and Knox, 2003).

As clinicians, this cannot be discounted. This pain is real and loss is loss. If there is a client bereaving a pet, ask about the relationship, what special place did the pet hold in her life and apply grief theory if necessary. Because pet bereavement has not received warranted attention in the counseling and psychology communities, many individuals who have lost a pet feel too embarrassed to seek help from counselors or friends… prolonging the pain and increasing feelings of isolation.

Let’s look at it this way: the presence of pets has been reported to elevate feelings of happiness, security, self worth and decrease feelings of loneliness and isolation so it would stand to reason that the loss of a pet would impact these affects as well. If we choose to love with all our hearts, we must grieve with all our hearts as well. This is true whether it’s a human or a companion animal relationship.

For those who live alone or have a limited social support network, the loss of a pet may signify the loss of a confidant, a friend who loved unconditionally and non-judgmentally. This is often hard to match in human form. Companion animals can be considered family or children. Pets often enhance the quality of life in families in ways that include increasing outward expression of affection, facilitating interaction and improved communication and increasing the overall joy in the home (Sharkin and Knox, 2003).

So during this time of togetherness and celebration, we can do as the seminal song suggests, remember our longstanding friendships and raise a glass to all of our family and friends, past and present, human and animal. We miss you Tobey. Happy Holidays!

Amy Johnson is a counselor, lecturer, founder, and program director of the non-profit organization, Teacher's Pet: Dogs and Kids Learning Together.

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