Outlet for grieving over loss of pet

By Karen Zautyk 

Observer Correspondent 

NUTLEY – 

If you’re not someone who loves animals, you can skip this story — because you probably won’t understand.

If you do love animals, and especially if you are a pet owner, read on. It will warm your heart.

Recently, we got a press release from Nutley Commissioner Steve Rogers, who noted that after he had met “with several residents who are having a very difficult time coping with the loss of a pet,” the Department of Public Affairs “has established a program to provide grief counseling and other resources for pet owners and family members who are facing such a difficult time.”

Rogers continued: “As an animal lover who has lost a pet, I fully understand how devastating such a loss is. It is a matter very difficult to cope with, to understand, and to speak about. Such a loss is especially hard on children, and elderly residents who have no family members.”

There is a sad irony here. The commissioner was talking about his past experience with losing a pet, but after we had made tentative plans for an interview with him and his wife, Natasha, who is helping with the new program, we had to reschedule. One of the couple’s beloved chihuahuas, 14-year-old Max, had just died.

“I was all in tears,” Natasha told us when we finally did meet. “It was complete devastation.”

Having had pets of our own all of our life, and, of course, having lost them over the years, we knew exactly what she meant. Luckily, like her, we have had people around us to comfort and lend support. But some people, especially seniors, have no one with whom to share their grief. “Who do they grieve to?” Rogers asked.

And, yes, it is true grief. “Obviously, the death of a human being is more devastating,” Rogers said. But, as pet people know, an animal companion becomes a member of the family. Its death is a death in the family. The home itself, which had been full of play and cuddles and barks or purrs, is empty. For someone alone, it becomes a void. As Rogers noted, “There is a depressing silence.”

For those who don’t understand this, who might say, “What’s the big deal?” Rogers has a response: “I dare them to look into the eyes of someone, especially a senior, whose pet has passed away and ask them the same question.”

The commissioner is urging Nutley residents who are having a difficult time in coping with the loss of a pet, or who know someone who is facing the same difficulty, to refer them to the Department of Public Affairs, 149 Chestnut St., 973-284-4976. “We will do all we can to walk with them through this most difficult and lonely time,” he said.

Natasha Rogers has set up a Facebook page — Nutley Department of Public Affairs Pet Heath Resource Center — where you can find advice and share your thoughts with other pet lovers via a supportive message board.”We are letting them know there is someone to talk to,” Natasha said.

For those who do not have internet access, Rogers said the department can print out the page and also hopes to include material in upcoming department newsletters. For more information on the Facebook outreach, residents can call 973-284-4976 or email commissionerogers@ nutleynj.org.

Along with dealing with grief, sharing one’s experience can help with the particular sorrow that is compounded by guilt, when the owner has had to make the heart-wrenching decision to have an ailing, suffering pet put down.

“They feel guilty,” Rogers said. But, he added, they need to realize that “the ultimate act of love is to make that final decision.”

Some pet owners, although left bereft, are hesitant to get another pet. They don’t want to feel like they are “replacing” the one that died. Or, as more than one friend has told us, “I couldn’t go through that loss again.”

The Rogers experienced these emotions when Max died, but they have since gotten a new dog. Natasha said her husband assured her, “You didn’t replace Max. You continued his legacy of love with another dog.”

Now sharing the Rogers’ home with their other chihuahua, Marshall, is a German Shepherd puppy, Bear. Yes, a chihuahua and a German Shepherd. But the little-bitty one rules the place. They have become great buddies, but Marshall is the alpha dog. We know. We’ve seen the video.

The commissioner, who spends part of every Saturday going door-to- door to chat with his constituents, noted he had met several senior citizens who had lost a pet and were having an especially difficult time: They wanted to get a new pet but were reluctant because they feared the animal would outlive them.

For such individuals, Rogers suggests that, in their wills, they designate someone to be the animal’s caretaker. If no friend of family member is willing, or suitable, the pet owner can note that it should be given to a no-kill shelter or an animal sanctuary.

Hopefully, that advice will help, for people who love animals need animals in their lives. “Dogs and cats and other pets are very therapeutic,” Rogers said.

“They’re life-savers.”

And he noted, “Where else do you get that unconditional love? Spell the word ‘DOG’ backwards.”

The Observer Staff