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When a Pet Dies : Owner's Grief for an Animal Is Usually a Lonely, Misunderstood Experience

July 14, 1989|SUSAN CHRISTIAN | Susan Christian is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Cats are proud to the end. So, as most of them will do, Gatita crawled off to hide to await death.

But her owner could not bear to let Gatita spend her final hours alone. "I curled up beside her on the floor, and stayed with her all night," Jeannine Mackin-Ocampo said, breaking into tears at the memory. "She always slept on the foot of my bed. I didn't want for us to be apart on her last night."

The next day Mackin-Ocampo, 31, would have to say goodby to her companion of 14 years. Old age had taken its toll; Gatita suffered irreparable kidney failure, and the veterinarian recommended euthanasia.

Pet lovers are hopeful to the end. Even though Mackin-Ocampo intellectually accepted the inevitable, emotionally she did not.

"Gatita woke up around midnight and started eating, and I thought, 'She's doing better,' " said the Costa Mesa resident. "I was praying for a sign that she'd be OK, that there would be a change for the better."

But there was no miracle.

Gatita's death last February came at an already difficult time for Mackin-Ocampo. Only weeks before, she had separated from her husband, moved from Los Angeles to Orange County and started a new job.

"My whole life was changing," she said. "I was so afraid of losing Gatita. She represented 14 years of my life. I got her when I was 18; I had her through college, I had her through several relationships, I had her through my marriage and separation. She was my stabilizing force.

"When the vet told me that I had to put her to sleep, I was very upset. But I had to go to work that week, although the cat was all that mattered to me. I couldn't call in sick--I'd just started my job, and I was still on probation," said Mackin-Ocampo, a rehabilitation therapist.

After losing her cat, she was overcome by depression--the depths of which surprised her. "My body felt tied in knots," she said. "I cried every time I touched something of Gatita's to put it away. I never realized the impact her death would have on me."

Fortunately, Mackin-Ocampo had been in counseling since the dissolution of her marriage. "I was glad that I was dealing with the loss of my husband so that it would not be magnified by the loss of my cat," she said. "Otherwise, I might have gone off the deep end."

Mackin-Ocampo's profound grief is more common than those who are less attached to animals might imagine.

"Some people have a relationship with their pets that is every bit as significant as any human relationship they have," said Danna Olson, a Carlsbad veterinarian who conducts an ongoing support group for bereaved pet lovers.

"The process of grieving a pet's death is very similar to that of grieving a family member's death; the only difference is that the intense stage of grief usually doesn't last as long."

Losing a pet can be a much more lonely experience than the loss of a relative. When a person suffers a family death, friends and co-workers react with telephone calls, flowers and cards. But that same sympathetic network often fails to grasp the trauma of a pet's death.

"People don't get the same emotional support after losing a pet," said Costa Mesa veterinarian Joel Pasco. "They're out there in limbo. They can go into a severe depression, yet friends don't take it seriously."

"If your spouse dies, you can call in sick to work and you have a lot of sympathy," said San Diego psychotherapist Lorri Greene, who co-sponsors with Olson a pet bereavement support group.

"If your cat dies and you call in sick, you're faced with a lot of snickering and, 'Oh, geez, it was only a cat--why don't you go to the pound and pick up another cat?' Your feelings are totally discounted."

Nick Vlahos didn't tell just anybody about the funeral service that his family held for its poodle, Tasha. "People would think this was a loony house," said the Anaheim Hills aerospace scientist.

He and his wife, Linda, and their two daughters read passages out of the Bible before burying Tasha in a silk-lined coffin.

"We did for Tasha whatever we would have done for a human," Vlahos said. "I loved Tasha just like I love my kids, absolutely. She was our first baby." The dog was 15 years old when she died last October; his children, Angela and Valerie, are 11 and 13.

"I cried for two months solid after Tasha died," said Linda Vlahos, a flight attendant. "Not a day goes by that I don't think about her."

Animalphiles to the core, the Vlahoses have been known to cancel vacation plans for the sake of a convalescing pet. And, as far as Nick Vlahos is concerned, four-legged creatures "can do no wrong."

"Our cat knocked pieces off Dad's marble chess set and broke them. If I had done that, I would have been grounded for a month, but he didn't even yell at the cat," said Valerie.

"When the cat jumped on the table and knocked off an expensive vase, Mr. Vlahos here said it was my fault for putting the vase in the cat's way," his wife added with a laugh.

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