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It's never easy losing a pet.
A grief counselor offers tips for healing.

By James Harris, DVM

“Every blade in the field,
Every leaf in the forest,
Lays down its life in its season,
As beautifully as it was taken up.”

--Henry David Thoreau

IN NATURE'S great plan, all living things are born, grow, age, and die. No living thing is immortal.

That can be a difficult thing to accept when we have to say goodbye to those we love, even if the beloved is "only" a pet.

Cloistered in our urban environments, we feel the need to connect with nature through animals. For most people, that means sharing their lives with a dog or cat. Many of the rest of us have chosen birds.

Pets since prehistory
Every culture has been fascinated by birds, their plumage and their ability to fly. We've kept birds since prehistory, from the jungle fowl, the ancestor of the modern chicken, to the Romans' fondness for pet African parrots, to medieval times when the pigeon was domesticated for food.

Two thousand years after the Roman Empire, we still keep exotic birds as companions. They enchant us with their antics, intelligence, affection and ability to talk right back at us. They, like dogs and cats, have become a part of our families. And that always means strong emotional bonds.

Compared with most other beings, we humans are relatively long-lived. When it comes to choosing companion animals, we pick them for lots of reasons, but rarely for their long lifespans. (Otherwise, we'd all be keeping Galapagos turtles in our back yards). As a result, the sad reality is we outlive most of our pets.

Our parrots, protected from predation and the whims of nature, can live longer than their free counterparts if fed properly and kept well. However, their life expectancies vary widely.

If you're lucky enough to share your life with an African grey, Amazon, cockatoo or macaw, you should be able to enjoy your bird for many, many years. These species live as long as people do; in fact, you should consider them in estate planning. One of my Amazon patients was in a family for 106 years; four generations had cared for the bird.

However, most of us keep smaller parrots, which don't live as long. The budgie averages 5 to 7 years, cockatiels between 15 and 20 years, and mid-size parrots up to 20 or 30 years.

Special relationships
The British psychiatrist Keddie wrote, “A person who insists on a special relationship with a pet can be expected to have a rather sharp reaction at the loss of that pet.”

While that might sound obvious, when we realize the roles we impose on our pets, it helps us understand why we grieve so deeply when they die.

As Keddie notes, many of us subconsciously "insist" that our pets serve as a substitute lover, child or sibling. If the pet is even more special because it was rescued or the last link to a deceased family member, our reaction to its death can indeed be profound, prolonged, and intense.

As uncomfortable as it might feel, grief is a normal response to loss. The stages of grief - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance - and the order in which they are supposed to occur are by now well known. However, we also know stages don't necessarily progress in an orderly fashion or last fixed times.

So it's difficult to anticipate how long you may feel sad over the loss of your bird. The good news is, you can take concrete actions to help alleviate the heartbreak.

Healing the hurt
Chances are your bird was a family favorite, so you should work as a family to heal the hurt. If you have to make a decision about euthanasia, include everyone in the discussion. Encourage children to express themselves. Practicing their feelings now will make future losses easier for them.

Memorializing your bird in some way can help a great deal. Select a favorite photograph to frame or write down your memories. Hold a funeral in your back yard.

If you feel mired in grief and can't move forward, get outside support. Something as simple as sharing your feelings on a message board for people who have lost pets can make you feel better.

Several sites on the Internet offer consolation. Petloss.com, a site started in 1992 by a man grieving his beagle, features a message board, chat room, a place to post a memorial to your pet, and articles and inspirational poems on overcoming grief.

At least one Internet newsgroup, alt.support.grief.pet-loss, is devoted entirely to helping members get through sadness over losing a pet. Most people who frequent these sites and groups are mourning dogs and cats, but they'll support you, too.

If you need more, Petloss.com and many other sites, including that of the American Veterinary Medical Association, list toll-free hotlines with volunteer counselors standing by. If you prefer face-to-face, ask your vet to refer you to a pet-loss support group in your area or a licensed grief and bereavement counselor. Petloss.com also lists support groups, by state.

Some people go further to alleviate their grief - by buying headstones or even plots in expensive pet cemeteries. All you may need is a friend's shoulder, or a helpful book. There are at least half a dozen devoted to the topic of pet-loss grief.

A candle to remember
However we decide to handle our feelings, it helps to know we're not alone. All we have to do is look around us to see that our society, once unsentimental and unflinchingly practical toward all animals, is more willing than ever to respect the pet owner's feelings.

Each Monday, hundreds of people around the world log on to petloss.com, and in a 20-minute ceremony light candles in their respective homes to honor the pets they miss.

If you lose your beloved bird, you too can light a candle for him, in your heart if nowhere else, and allow yourself to remember and grieve.

By facing your feelings, you light your way to a new day, one in which you can love again.

About the author

James Harris, DVM is owner and medical director of Montclair Veterinary Clinic and Hospital in Oakland, Calif. He lectures frequently on the human-animal bond.

ParrotChronicles.com. Published 2002.


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