When a Beloved Pet Is Dying, Jamie Quackenbush Finds the Words to Ease the Pain

updated 09/26/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/26/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

As Charley lay dying in a Philadelphia hospital, a monitor recording his labored heartbeat, Robert F. Walsh was inconsolable. "I love you, Charley. I surely do," whispered the 65-year-old retired government clerk from New Jersey, who had frantically barged into the intensive care unit at 3 a.m. that morning. Now, against medical advice—"I'd be surprised if he survives the trip," head nurse Carole Contel told Walsh—he wanted to take Charley home to die.

Worried doctors called for Jamie Quackenbush, perhaps the best person in the country to handle this kind of situation—a human being struggling to come to grips with the imminent death of a beloved pet. "The doctors and nurses are telling you the truth," Quackenbush explained to the grief-stricken Walsh. "Charley is about to die. But if you don't want to have him euthanized, then it's okay to take him home. He's in no pain."

The next day Walsh was back to have his 4-year-old golden retriever disposed of by the hospital and to visit with Quackenbush. "Charley died happy," he told Quackenbush. "He had his sock with him. Thanks. You made this a lot easier."

Making such moments easier is Quackenbush's job. As a pet bereavement counselor—the only one in the country until New York's Animal Medical Center started a similar program last year—he helps people cope with the baffling and sometimes deeply painful emotions the death of a pet can bring. Though the concept of a pet bereavement counselor may seem amusing to some, it is no laughing matter to scores of owners who have a hard time accepting the loss of a pet. "Please help me," wrote a West Blocton, Ala. woman whose pet Susie had died. "My husband keeps telling me not to cry. But I feel like I lost one of my kids." Quackenbush replied, "It's important that you understand your feelings are normal. Don't forget all the happiness Susie brought into your life."

Quackenbush says his clients are not fanatics. "Intelligent people feel they are crazy if they have an emotional reaction to the death of a pet," he says. "But it's okay to feel anger and guilt. That's part of the healing process. Just because you cried harder when your pet died than when your dad died doesn't mean you loved your dog more than your dad. A pet represents much more than itself. You equate the pet to your personal history, your good times and bad."

The helplessness one woman felt when her cat, Effie, died illustrates Quackenbush's point. The cat's companionship had helped her recover from the death of her fiancé in Vietnam and a subsequent rape. The woman became a nurse and had gotten her life together when Effie suddenly took ill and had to be euthanized. "Effie gave me a reason for being and now she's dead," the woman told Quackenbush. Quackenbush realized the woman was caught up in what she thought she owed the cat for helping her get over her earlier traumas. "I didn't question the significance of the cat in her life," he says. "But I tried to give her credit for having the strength to deal with most of it close up."

Since March 1980 Quackenbush, 35, has helped more than 400 people face the ordeal of a dying pet. From his work at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society (for which he is paid $21,000 a year), Quackenbush has developed a keen clinical understanding of the pet bereavement process—depression, loss of appetite and avoidance of insensitive people, particularly those who see pets as interchangeable commodities. He warns friends of bereft pet owners: "The two worse things you can say are 'It's just a dog' and 'Why don't you get another one?' "

Negative reactions are most intense the first two or three days—often the pet owner will avoid going to work, for fear of seeming unduly upset over the loss of a "mere" pet—but five to 10 hours of personal or telephone counseling will help the average person overcome the grief, says Quackenbush. Sometimes, however, months of help are needed. The recovery process is especially difficult for the elderly, particularly those living alone, for whom the loss is that of their only companion. "The most common reaction of the elderly," says Quackenbush, "is 'Why should I stay alive? The one thing that I had that I still enjoyed is gone.' My challenge is to give them a reason to stay alive."

The success of his work (he's never had a suicide or been sued, though he's covered by malpractice insurance) brings grateful responses from people he comforts. One couple sent him a $75 check in the name of their late cat; another couple wrote to say they had named their new dog Jamie. Jane Biberman, 39, a Philadelphia free-lance writer who went to Quackenbush to help her decide what to do with her ailing 13-year-old mutt, Snapper, says: "He'll sit and cry with you over a cup of coffee. You can say all the things to Jamie you're embarrassed to say to other people."

Fellow social workers might once have snickered at such work, but Purdue, Texas A&M, Ohio State and the University of Minnesota have sought Quackenbush's advice on starting pet bereavement programs. "The real question is why veterinary medicine has taken so long to get into this area of social work," observes Dr. Alan Beck, who runs the university center in Philadelphia. "Jamie is a pioneer."

Quackenbush was born and raised in Ann Arbor, Mich., where he was surrounded by cats and dogs as a kid. But it was just coincidence that he became a pioneer. He obtained his undergraduate and master's degrees in social work from the University of Michigan, fully intending to be a traditional social worker. When he came to the University of Pennsylvania to get his Ph.D., which he is still pursuing, he was offered the job of pet bereavement counselor.

An incident that occurred a year before he took the job was a turning point in helping Quackenbush understand his human patients. In 1979 his family decided to have a pet cat named Funny Face euthanized. Because of his lukewarm feelings toward the cat, Quackenbush volunteered to drive it to a hospital where it would be put to death. Funny Face looked up at him as he drove. "I started crying my eyes out," Quackenbush recalls. "I hadn't realized how important that cat was to our family life."

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