An Interview with Laurel E. Hunt
Laurel Hunt’s lifelong love of animals has led to her mission, which is to further understanding of the enduring bonds that we form with pets. She explores the human-animal bond through writing on pet loss, pet hospice, and living with pets. She is active in community organizations that promote the human/animal bond including pet therapy dogs, animal shelters, and rescue groups.
Following the loss of two of her dogs to cancer, Laurel compiled Angel Pawprints; Reflections on Loving and Losing a Canine Companion, a collection of stories, poems and tributes to man’s best friend. Subsequently, she compiled Angel Whiskers: Reflections on Loving and Losing a Feline Companion. Laurel knows first-hand the sorrow of losing a beloved pet, and what makes that type of loss so poignant.
Q. Sometimes people are more devastated by the loss of their pet than by the loss of a human family member. What do you suppose that’s all about?
A. I think it’s a testament to the deep bonds that you form with a pet over a period of time. The pet is always there for you with its unconditional love, in good times and in bad. Also, you have to consider the changing demographics of our society. For many people whose children have left the nest, or who never had children, the pet becomes the child. So many people live alone – older people, single people – and the pet is their constant companion and primary source of emotional support. You form daily routines around caring for the dog, walking it and so on. The pet may also facilitate social contact as you meet other pet owners in the park, for instance. But the most powerful factor in the bond is the unconditional love and acceptance that we receive from pets. They accept us exactly as we are, and are always there for us. One of my favorite stories in Angel Pawprints is about a springer spaniel named Barney, who went everywhere with his master for 12 years. Reflecting on Barney’s life, the owner says, “Barney’s love enabled me to do things I only thought I was doing alone.” That sums up companionship pretty well.
Q. Is the human/animal bond becoming more recognized? How do you see that changing?
A. Yes, the human/animal bond and the ways in which animals benefit us are becoming more recognized. Many studies have documented the health benefits of living with pets, for example, in lowering blood pressure and stress. Pet therapy programs, where teams of dogs and handlers visit hospitals and nursing homes, are very popular. Stories of service dogs helping a disabled person lead a more independent life appear frequently. Dogs are also helping children with autism, and alerting someone with epilepsy to the onset of a seizure. I believe there is almost no limit to what dogs can be trained to do. They are also being openly acknowledged as family members. Natural disasters such as Katrina have demonstrated that people would risk their lives rather than leave their pets behind. This reality has forced a shift in the thinking of disaster preparedness organizations, and they now know that they have to provide a safe place for pets, too.
I’ve noticed in my travels to England that pets have long been recognized as members of the family. Dogs are referred to as “chums,” and it’s very common to see dogs in public places. The BBC has very popular pet programs in prime time. The pet magazines have obituary pages.
Recognition of the human/animal bond is increasing, and when the bond is broken through loss of the pet, our society is becoming more sensitive to pet loss and bereavement. But we still have a long way to go.
Q. How is the loss of a pet different from other loss experiences?
A. The major difference is the lack of understanding and emotional support you can expect to receive. You feel completely alone. If a human family member dies, there is a funeral and a time of mourning. The pet owner, however, must hide their grief or feel foolish expressing it. Very few people will understand what that relationship meant to you, and most will not know what to say, so they say nothing, or worse, they’ll say something like, “It was only a dog. You can get another one.” Because of this lack of understanding, you tend to hide your grief and not express it. But if you bottle up your grief, you will not be able to heal and move on. The one message I would like to convey in my books is it’s okay to feel sad. You’ve lost a treasured, significant relationship. They really are our best friends.
Many people are unprepared for the emotional aftermath of losing their pet. Because the pet is totally dependent on you, it is easy to be lulled into thinking that it will live forever, that you have the power to keep it from harm. Because of better nutrition and veterinary care, pets are living longer, but as they age they become vulnerable to diseases such as cancer or arthritis. My experience in caring for dogs with cancer was that I progressed from shock and denial at the diagnosis, to the point that I became closely attuned to their day to day feelings. I became totally involved in their care, and I understand the stress that caregivers experience. It is emotionally draining and exhausting. But I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.
Q. Is there a certain way to go about grieving for a pet? And if people don’t grieve appropriately, what harm can that cause?
A. It’s important to accept that you will go through a period of very intense feelings, and you will not be able to carry on your normal activities at your usual pace. You may feel overwhelmed, unable to concentrate, and experience sleep disturbances. So you need to be kind to yourself, and recognize that this will pass. Perhaps take a vacation that you may have postponed during the pet’s illness. You will experience the stages of grief that accompany the loss of any significant relationship – anger, denial, guilt, depression, and finally, acceptance. No one can predict how long this will last; it is very individual. These feelings are completely normal; there is nothing weird or crazy about feeling them or expressing them. Sharing your feelings with others who understand can be very helpful. Many communities have pet loss support groups, and there are online groups as well.
There are also a number of rituals that can help to honor your pet’s memory. These include memorial donations to a humane society, planting a beautiful bush or tree in the pet’s memory, creating a scrapbook or web site of favorite photos, or simply writing a letter to the pet to say how much it meant to you. One of the stories in Angel Pawprints tells about placing a family photo in the pet’s grave, to signify all the people who loved him. I found that suggestion very comforting. There are also numerous pet loss web sites where you can post a tribute. The point is it’s okay to do whatever comforts you.
Q. What about when a pet has to be euthanized? How does that affect grief?
A. The decision to euthanize a pet is truly the most difficult one a pet owner ever has to make. You feel that you’re betraying the love and trust the pet has in you. So in addition to the loss, you can be haunted by questions of did I do it too soon, might the pet have gotten better, or did I wait too long, did my pet suffer. What you have to remember is you made the best decision you could at the time, and you didn’t kill your pet, the disease killed your pet.
I recommend that to the extent that you can plan ahead for this situation, you should do so. Ask your veterinarian what to expect with the procedure, and decide whether or not you want to be present. Decide how you will bury the pet, and ask about cremation and pet cemeteries. Although some pets will pass away on their own, many have to be helped along when quality of life is diminished. If you plan for this, you won’t have to make hasty decisions that you may later wish you had done differently.
Regardless of how your pet leaves you, remember always that your time together is a precious gift. You will find that the gift of a pet’s love is everlasting.
Laurel presented “Funding and Sustaining a Hospital Pet Therapy Program” at the International Society for Anthrozoology/Human-Animal Interaction Conference, held in Kansas City, Missouri, October 24-25, 2009.
Laurel is an invited speaker on “Funding a Hospital Pet Therapy Program” at the American Holistic Nursing Association Annual Conference, June, 2010.