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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Dr. Zorba Paster: Grief is an individual experience

By Dr. Zorba Paster For The Spokesman-Review

Dear Doc: I related to your piece on how the death of a pet impacts your life. I’m a social worker. As you probably know, social workers have a high rate of burnout.

As a doctoral student, I looked at those working in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, neuro-intensive care, cardiac-intensive care, hospital emergency departments, cancer centers, etc. What I found was that the loss of a pet within the previous two years was correlated with the highest rate of burnout and depression, higher than even the death or illness of partners, close relatives or friends. Only the death of a child was worse. We called it the “fluffy factor.”

Keep up the good work. – Barbara from New Jersey

Dear Barbara: I did some research on this. You are so right. Many of us forge an intense bond with these creatures. Intense bonds mean intense grief.

My good friend Nancy, who has since passed, told me once that grief has its own clock. How true it is.

A couple of years ago, one of my patients came in to talk to me about grieving for her mom, who had passed four months before. She was super close to her mom – her mom was always there for her, and when her mom was in failing health, this woman stepped up to the plate to help her mom during her final days, her final hours.

Six months later, her friends wondered why she was still “sulking” for her mom. They never came out and said that but she could tell what they were thinking. Every day she had times when she thought of her mom – sometimes it made her smile, other times it made her cry.

What upset her was that her support system – and she had quite a few friends and relatives – seemed to be saying to her: “Get over it. You’ve had your time to grieve, now move on with your life. After all, your mom was old and frail. You expected it, didn’t you?”

This was upsetting to her. She wondered if she was “normal.” Should she still be feeling pain from that loss? Grief has its own clock.

The same can be true when it comes to those fluffy creatures with whom we so closely bond. For those of you who have never had a pet they connected with, this might be hard to understand. But losing a dog or a cat can be a traumatic experience. It can be just like losing a parent.

A bit of personal stuff here. Penny and I have had many dogs. All are standard poodles. We got dogs of this breed initially because they don’t shed, then we connected to the breed in general. Each dog breed has its own personality and the standard poodle matches ours.

When we lost our last doggie, Izzy, it was intense. Super-intense. All of our kids connected to this 11 year old. We were all crying together over the phone, on Facetime with Izzy during the final days, consoling each other.

When it was over and I wrote about it in my column, I received a ton of condolence cards, Facebook messages and emails – more comments than on any other column I have ever written. It shows you how right on these connections are. Grief has its own clock.

Now what comes next? For some, the loss of a pet is so dreadful they never get a new one. It’s just too painful. For others, the camp our family is in, we do get a new pet. You never replace the one you lost, that’s for sure. But for us, the best way to mourn a dog is with another dog. These are individual choices.

Now, back to my patient. You can’t replace a parent, a friend, a loved one. If you were close, the scar is there forever. The pain and the grief are such individual things.

My dad lost three of his sisters to malignant melanoma – two in their 30s and one in her 40s. He never talked about it. One day, I asked him, “Do you ever think of your sisters?” He told me he thought of them every day. Shocked, I asked him why he didn’t talk about them with me. He said he didn’t want to bother me or burden me. Men brought up in the ’20s and ’30s were raised not to show their feelings. When my mom died, my dad said that he wished he could cry.

My spin: Grief is individual. It has its own clock. It’s something we should all give its due respect. Stay well.

Dr. Zorba Paster is a family physician, professor at University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, and host of the public radio program “ZorbaPasteron Your Health,” which airs at noon Wednesdays on 91.1 FM, and noon Sundays on 91.9 FM. His column appears twice a month in The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at askzorba@