By Teri Borseti
The loss of a pet can be a traumatic experience for people of any age, but for empty nesters the experience can be particularly difficult. Most families choose to adopt a dog or cat when their children are young. Pets quickly become part of the family and grow up with the kids. Then before we know it, our offspring are leaving their furry friends behind to head off to college.
In some homes when this occurs, pets actually move up a notch and become the empty nesters' babies. The animals are fawned over and spoiled and become the focus of the house. But it isn’t uncommon to lose a pet around the same time the kids go off to start their own lives, and that can be a devastating loss.
For years, Tabby or Spike helped round out the family but when they go, the nest feels emptier than ever. Families, childless couples, and singles alike find it very easy to form attachments to pets and they rely on them for companionship, emotional support, and unconditional love. No wonder the grieving process for the loss of a pet can be detrimental to one’s health.
When an animal dies unexpectedly or must be euthanized due to illness, the experience depletes the owner’s energy reserves. This is especially true for people who have spent any length of time caring for an ailing pet.
Pet owners typically experience the five stages of loss, which include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Symptoms of posttraumatic stress syndrome can also be part of the grieving process. In rare cases, people can suffer a serious depressive disorder. For some, the extreme sadness can cause loss of appetite and resulting weight loss, insomnia or nightmares, and a complete lack of vitality. It’s important that grieving pet owners make a conscious effort to take care of themselves at this time and get professional help if that seems warranted. Talking to a therapist can help and those who can’t seem to get past the loss can talk to their doctors about possibly using antidepressants to help them get through the difficult time.
For both normal and extreme reactions to pet loss, experts recommend maintaining a regular routine that includes eating healthy food, getting enough sleep, and talking to someone about your pain. There are even hotline numbers available for people who really need to talk to someone. Another good way to help beat the blues is to exercise. Go to the gym, for a walk, or a bike ride, and get those endorphins working for you. It might also be a good idea to take on a new hobby or sign up for class. Staying busy can be a good distraction.
Other options may include joining pet bereavement support groups and honoring the deceased pet with a pet ceremony or memorial. Also, some people find solace in religion or philosophy. In addition, although this isn’t highly recommended, occasionally those in the throes of grief go right out and adopt another pet as soon as possible.
Finally, people who have multiple pets need to keep in mind that their remaining animals will most likely experience the loss as well. They may seem out of sorts for a while. Consult your veterinarian if you're concerned about your pets' behavior, especially if they're not eating.
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Teri Borseti has been a freelance writer for over 20 years. Her byline has appeared in numerous publications including The Boston Globe, Ocean Home Magazine, Boston- Common Magazine. She is also the author of “Memories of Maverick”. Please visit http://www.teriborseti.com/