Did you ever have a box of treasured objects as a child? I had two identical ones. They were shaped like a pirate’s treasure chest and had a padlock with a key. The shiny brown boxes lined with gold edges had originally contained a variety of delicious chocolates. The treasures I kept locked inside the boxes after their original contents had been eaten were much more meaningful. One of them was a newspaper article written about Finjy, my first goldfish. Mum and I found him floating upside down in his tank one afternoon. He looked decidedly unwell. Mum did what any pet lover would do, and took Finjy and I down to the local vet’s. Several days later, the following article appeared in a regular column of ‘The Herald’, a well known Melbourne newspaper. I saved the article and put it in my treasure box.finjy

Several years later my primary school held a pet competition at the annual fete. I was in grade six at the time, and had a guinea pig called Woffles. His black and white fur was peppered with chestnut brown streaks. I entered him in the ‘Pet most like its owner’ category. My maternal grandmother made Woffles some glasses out of pipe cleaners. They were kept in place over his tiny eyes with a pink ribbon tied below his ears. I was thrilled when we won first prize. There was finally a positive side to me having to wear thick glasses. The prize was a one dollar note. That was a lot of money in 1969. I kept that note and the envelope it came in that said ‘Pet most like its owner’ in my treasure box.

The treasure boxes were eventually replaced with memories and photos of my beloved pets. Nicky the labrador, Jumpy the boxer dog, Quamby the cat we adopted, and Prince, our King Charles Cavalier X Shih Tzu.

Prince was the first dog that my husband and children had for a pet. He was a treasured member of our family who brought us great joy. He was only six when the vet heard a murmur whilst listening to his heart. He was diagnosed with a heart valve problem and put on tablets. He only lived for another year or so after the diagnosis, and died of heart failure, surrounded by his loving family.

I was devastated. Prince had been like a third child to me. He had the same structural problem in his heart that my parents and I had, and he died seven months after my Mum. Another example of pet most like his owner. Only this time there was no one dollar prize.

I told my employer that I was taking bereavement leave after Prince died, but he said the death of a pet did not fit the criteria for that kind of leave. I was incredulous. How could my employer be so heartless and inflexible?! I ended up taking sick leave instead. My heart was breaking and needed time to heal.

People who are grieving a pet’s death are often reticent to express the intensity of their grief because they think it’s inappropriate. However I think it is both helpful and therapeutic. There is nothing wrong with needing to take time off after the death of a beloved pet. Rituals such as saying a few words when the pet or their ashes are buried, and marking the grave in some way, may also be helpful. They were in my case.

The next time you have a friend who is mourning a dead pet, treat them with TLC. They probably need your compassion whether they admit it or not.

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