When the death of a pet leaves a hole in your heart

  • Dusty Miller of Belchertown displays photos of her longtime pets, cats Bardsley, left, and Mary Clare, who died two years ago. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

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    Miller decided she could not replace her beloved cats, but she focuses her affection on her "grandpuppy" Dukie, a Bright Spot Cockapoo therapy dog who works with her at Hospice of the Fisher Home in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Dusty Miller of Belchertown had Bardsley, left, and Mary Clare with her for 16 years. They died two years ago and she is still grieving. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Miller displays photos of her deceased pets, Bardsley and Mary Clare. “They played such an important role in my life,” she says. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

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    Miller decided she could not replace her beloved cats, but she spends time with her "grandpuppy" Dukie, a Bright Spot Cockapoo therapy dog, who works with her at Hospice of the Fisher Home in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

Staff Writer
Published: 9/11/2017 1:51:55 PM

When Dusty Miller of Belchertown would pick up her cat Mary Clare, the kitty would wrap its little legs around her shoulders in a kind of hug. When Miller was sad, Bardsley, her other cat, would cuddle up to her.

But two summers ago, both pets succumbed to age-related illnesses. One had an inoperable tumor and the other failing kidneys. Miller, 72, had to make the difficult decision to have them euthanized, and she’s still not over it.

“They played such an important role in my life,” she said in an interview last week. Miller still gets teary when she talks about them. Although it’s been two years, she says she needs another outlet for her grief, an opportunity to share stories, show photos and exchange ideas for coping with the loss of her pets. A retired psychotherapist, Miller, figures there are other people like her, so, along with her friend, social worker Jean Footit, she is trying to organize a support group. The first meeting will be next Tuesday from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the First Congregational Church in Amherst and it will continue for five weeks.

People grieve when they lose a human loved one, Miller says, yet many feel they must suppress their sadness after the death of a furry loved one.

“We will normalize this sort of grief,” she said of her motive to start the group. Those who attend, “will know that they are not the only ones feeling this way.”

The meetings will be free and everything discussed will be confidential, says Miller. Those who come will not be required to speak; they can just sit and listen if they wish, she says. Miller and Footit will start with a conversation about grief and give participants an opportunity to express their sadness. Then the two will go over coping techniques, like visiting a neighbor’s pet or even taking a job as a pet sitter. In the final meeting, they will consider plans for the future, talk about options, like getting another pet, or the decision not to. “I think there is a need for this,” Miller said.

Part of the family

Ruth Pearlman, a professor in the Smith College School of Social Work and at Springfield College, agrees. She also runs a private practice in Northampton and she says clients regularly come to her with profound feelings of loss and isolation after losing a pet.

“People always say pets are part of our family. Pets give us this unconditional love and when all of a sudden that uncommon love is not there — it is a serious loss,” Pearlman said. 

It is not uncommon for people to feel embarrassed about the sadness they feel when a pet dies, she says. “It is important to remove the stigma from this grief. This is serious love.”

A pet bereavement support group would show those in grief that they are not alone, she says. “I think it is a great idea and I could see referring people to this group.”

First loss at 7

Miller said that losing her first pet, at age 7, left a deep impression on her. Her rabbit had a deadly encounter with some neighborhood dogs, and, when she came home from school, her pet was gone. Miller says she was devastated and confused. She didn’t know whether it was OK to tell her teachers or classmates, so she kept her feelings to herself. 

“It was this private grief that I experienced as a child,” she said.

When, many years later, she lost her beloved cats, she again felt isolated in her sadness, she says.

Litter mates, Miller’s cats came from a breeder on Cape Cod and they were by her side for 16 years, she says. When she became single at the end of a long-term relationship, the cats made her home feel less empty, she says, bounding to greet her when she returned from work.

Bardsley, the outgoing one, would act more like a dog than a cat, she says, wading in the shallow part of the lake in the backyard and pawing at minnows. It wasn’t uncommon for him to follow her around the house. Mary Clare, Miller says, was delicate and shy. Devoted to Miller, she wouldn’t always acknowledge guests, Miller says, but she soon warmed up to Miller’s partner, Dorothy Cresswell.

Eventually, Bardsley developed a tumor that was crowding his lungs, making it hard for him to breath.

When the vet came to the house to euthanize him, Miller cradled him in her arms as he received the injection.

Three months later, Mary Clare’s kidneys stopped working properly and Miller had to repeat the heart-rending process.

“It was the summer of a lot of intense sadness,” she said. “They had been in my life a long time and it was something that I really struggled with.”

Attempts to move on

Miller quickly decided against getting more animals. No cats could replace the ones she lost, she says, but she also feared that, being in her 70s, she might not be able to care for a pet long-term.

Instead, she sometimes babysits her “grandpuppy,” Dukie, her grandchildren’s dog. She’s had him trained as a therapy dog and brings him to visit residents at Hospice of the Fisher Home in Amherst.

In her spare time, she also writes mystery books, in which some of the characters are cats, similar to Bardsley and Mary Clare.

This has helped her cope, she says, but she still yearns to share her feelings of loss with others who have had like experiences.

The new support group will be open to adults who have lost any kind of pet, she says. It is also meant to serve older people who have had to give up an animal due to the need to move out of their homes, or are unable to continue caring for it. The group would also welcome those who have lost pets in end-of-relationship custody battles, she says.

“When people lose a spouse or a child or a parent, sometimes it helps to be in a support group,” she says. “The sadness that comes with the loss of a pet is not always recognized as a real grief that needs to be honored. That needs to change.”

How to connect

Those interested in attending the pet bereavement support group should RSVP by calling 413-313-6317 or email DustyMiller1@gmail.com.

Lisa Spear can be reached at Lspear@gazettenet.com

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