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Fur, Fins and Feathers: Grieving process for pet owners takes time

By Brian J. Lowney – Contributing Writer

Fur, fins and feathers
March 11, 2012

The loss of a beloved family pet can be a devastating experience that requires time for emotional healing and the support of compassionate family members, friends and co-workers.

While some people once considered grieving for a deceased animal to be inappropriate, today there are books, support groups and websites for owners who've lost a treasured furry or feathered companion and retailers offer beautiful sympathy cards to acknowledge pets that have crossed the Rainbow Bridge.

Just as they would for any other family member, many folks are no longer ashamed to express their feelings and discuss the loss of a special animal that offered years of unconditional love and forged an ironclad bond that can never be broken.

Popular author Christine Davis, whose charming books filled with inspirational messages and whimsical illustrations have consoled grieving owners for 15 years, says that a vision of a beautiful angel moved her to write her first book, "For Every Dog An Angel," following the death of Martha, a large 50-pound black poodle-mix who was born in the author's bathroom.

Davis subsequently wrote two other books, "For Every Cat an Angel" and "Forever Paws" to offer hope to bereaved owners that they will one day be reunited with their furry or feathered companion for all eternity.

"It was the sighting of an angel that put me on the track," the Portland, Ore.-based writer continues, adding that her books are written "from the heart to the hearts of people who are grieving the loss of a beloved friend."

Davis tells grieving animal lovers not to be afraid to express their emotions, and to always treasure the many wonderful times that they shared with their pet.

"A large part of our journey with grief is sharing stories," she continues. "Sometimes just telling another person about your beloved critter — their name, how they came to you, all the special times you shared — can be healing."

The popular writer and illustrator encourages people who are grieving the loss of any animal "to give voice to their stories as a way of celebrating their critters and remembering all the joyful memories." She suggests sharing the poignant tales with a trusted friend or family member, counselor, or in a pet loss support group guided by someone who understands the great void left by the death of a family pet.

"Even writing down your stories — just for your own eyes — can be cathartic," Davis shares.

According to Dr. Thomas Burns, hospital director at Cape Cod Veterinary Associates in South Yarmouth, helping children cope with the death of a pet is "one of the greatest silver linings to the pain of pet loss."

The small animal practitioner adds that while death and loss are two of the most difficult life lessons to teach children, helping young family members to productively deal with with the loss of a pet offers them an opportunity to learn to mourn in a healthy way.

"This loss can have a lifetime impact on our children's understanding and their ability to cope with loss," Burns notes. "By discussing their loss honestly, encouraging expressions of feelings, and memorializing our pets in a proper way, we can make the experience ultimately a positive one."

While many veterinarians send sympathy cards to clients who've lost a pet, others send flowers or make a donation to a local animal shelter in memory of the animal. Burns and his staff offer clients a complimentary clay impression of their pet's paw to provide a positive, tangible memory of the treasured dog or cat.

"We bake and then carefully paint each clay impression ourselves," Burns tells. "Even though this is a labor-intensive project in a large veterinary hospital, the staff finds relief and closure in the process. By helping our clients through their grief, we end up relieving our own."

Burns adds that the veterinary practice often makes a donation to a pet fund in the name of a special patient or after an especially difficult loss. He says that by memorializing the hospital's patients in a way that helps others in need, staff members, as well as the pet owner, can heal and find closure in the difficult process.

"It is a tough situation for all, but there is personal satisfaction to be found in helping a client through such significant loss, easing their pain one client at a time," Burns concludes.

For more information about Davis' books, visit the author's Web site: www.lightheartedpress.com

Brian Lowney writes about pets for The Standard-Times.