A loss of a pet is never easy. But it becomes even more difficult when the grief is trivialised by society. It is never considered in the same vein as losing a ‘human’ companion. However, now there are a set of counselors who are handholding pet families through this difficult time. For instance, there is the iCall telephone and email-based counselling service founded by the Tata Institute of Social Services. The various counselors have had perspective building sessions with Rajvi Mariwala of the Mariwala Health Initiative (MHI) about the various 'stressors' that affect people who live with or are engaged with pets such as trainers, vets, and more. She is also a certified animal trainer-behaviourist and founder of Citizen K9 services. “The first time I referred someone to a counselor was in 2012. Earlier I would spend a lot of time on how to suggest counseling, how would it be received. But today, people are a lot more open to it. I don’t deliberate on this anymore and just say it,” says Mariwala.
What also helps is that there are more counselors now in Mumbai, Bengaluru and Delhi who understand the triggers of a pet family. “Everyone reacts differently to the loss. One can’t evaluate how people feel and judge it as this loss is bigger and that one is not,” says Meera Thosar, a dog trainer and behaviourist at Happy Tails dog boarding facility. “Companionship can’t be measured.” She has been through this grief herself recently when she lost her elder dog, Mili, to cancer. Barely ten days after her surgery, Mili breathed her last. “She was recuperating well. And then suddenly, she passed away. I just wasn’t ready to see her go,” says Thosar. “She was my first dog and had been my companion for 12 years.” It has not just been tough for her but also for her other pet companion, Maya, whom she adopted seven years ago. For all this time, her name would never be called out alone. It was always a joint call for Mili-Maya. “Mili would always be served in first position and then Maya in second. She is very confused as to why she is being served first. She still sits in second position,” adds Thosar.
According to Mariwala, in multiple pet families, this is a common reaction to loss by other animals. She cites the example of her household. Her dog is presently unwell due to a spine condition and the cats in the house are curious why she is in bed all day. She suggests that those whose pet companions are suffering from a debilitating condition such as cancer, need to prepare other animals in the family for changes. It is difficult being a caregiver for pets, as people around you don’t understand it when you need to take leaves for daily IV treatments or simply be with your sick pet. Missing out on a dinner engagement if, say, your parent is not well is sanctioned by society, but the same understanding is not extended in case of a pet companion. “But one needs to take steps to ensure that other pets don’t feel short changed. It is important to take some one-on-one time with them. If you have multiple pets, they do this daily with each for one hour, with others not present in the visual field,” she suggests.
Also, in case you need to shift the routine of walks, or vet visits, due to the medical needs of the sick pet, then do so slowly. And in the sad event of a pet’s passing, one needs to assure the other pet companions as well. When Mariwala’s older pet died three years ago, she made sure to get the body home so that her other dog could sniff it. “Speak to a behaviourist to help assure your other pet companions. I see a lot of pet parents unable to separate their own emotions from their pets’. They assume that their pet is feeling the exact same emotions as they are. I would suggest calling a friend over, or someone your pet is close to, so that their interactions are not loaded with the baggage of your feelings,” Mariwala suggests.
To be able to see a path forward clearly, it is also important for the pet parents to deal with the void that their companion has left behind. Having some sort of ritual to deal with the grief is important. Though she deals mostly with pre-pet counseling, to help some of her clients through such difficult moments, Thosar has started a ritual of planting a tree on the remains of their pet companions in her boarding facility. “Some of the dogs are resting on my property. The trees stand in their memory and people are welcome to come in and spend some time there. It is a very calming experience,” she says.