Jacqui Felgate: ‘For weeks I burst into tears at random times’

Grieving the death of a beloved pet shows just how much they are part of the family, writes Jacqui Felgate.

Recently I lost a little piece of my heart.

I had to put down my beautiful old Jack Russell, Hugo.

He was by my side for 16 years, through every up and down of my life.

One of the first dates my then boyfriend (and now husband) Michael and I went on was to collect him from a farm near Yarra Glen in Victoria – a little peanut of a puppy, the gorgeous tiny runt of the litter.

He was so small, Michael could fit him in his hand.

Bonding with Hugo

When I was pregnant with my first child, Hugo stuck to me like glue.

And when both my children were born, there was an instant bond.

My girls adored him right back.

Jack Russell terriers are notoriously cheeky dogs.

Hugo survived eating snail bait, two knee reconstructions, numerous escapes from our yard (only to be returned by helpful neighbours), two bouts of cancer and once almost falling off a four-storey cliff down the coast.

In later years, he became a minor celebrity in the dog park because he was so old and arthritic but still so sociable and happy.

He was even in a campaign with me for animal retailer Petstock (career highlight!).

People just loved to stop and ask about him.

He was, to me, the very best of boys.

Although we knew he was getting towards the end, it was still a terrible shock when it happened.

And what has struck me about the whole experience is the level of grief I am feeling.

I keep telling myself it’s just a dog and there are obviously far more serious and important issues in the world.

And that’s true. But it hasn’t stopped me from missing him terribly and sinking into an awful funk because I cared for him so deeply.

Facing the grief

For weeks I burst into tears at the most random times and kept thinking to myself, “Get a grip – this is getting ridiculous’’.

But it turns out I’m not alone.

The RSPCA says there is no right or wrong way to grieve for a pet and it is normal to experience a wide range of feelings.

There are even specific pet loss counselling services – who knew?

I was trying to put my finger on why I, along with seemingly countless others, struggle with the loss of a pet.

Our pets are family

I guess for me it was because Hugo was the one constant in my adult life.

I was 24 when I bought him and in my 40s when I said goodbye.

And for many people their pets are their family.

One thing that really helped me was our other dog, Harry.

Harry is a one-year-old rescue kelpie and we love him to bits.

I can’t imagine how much worse I would have felt if he wasn’t in the house.

He’s helped my kids cope, too, which has been a true blessing.

Dealing with sadness and guilt

There are so many websites and forums online that can help you deal with the sadness – and the guilt.

I made the decision to put Hugo down after rushing him to the vet hospital, where we found a blockage in his heart.

I knew in my heart it was the right decision but you still second guess yourself; it’s human nature.

The heartbreaking day

I said to the lovely vet (who I had just met, and I was bawling my eyes out): “This must be the worst part of your job.’’

And without missing a beat, he said to me: “Not when you are doing the right thing. And in this case it is 100 per cent the right thing.’’

It was that simple comment – that clarity from him – that eased the distressing doubt in my mind.

In times of mental stress, facts help.

I’m sure that’s not the case for everyone but having someone spell out the reality made coping that little bit easier.

And doing the right thing isn’t always easy.

I found this quote in the Washington Post from Leigh Ann Gerk, a pet loss grief counsellor, which I think sums up the bond between us and our pets well.

“Humans don’t go crazy with joy when you come back inside after getting the mail. Human relationships, while important, can be difficult.

“Our relationship with our pets is simple. They love us just as we are.’’

And that’s it in a nutshell. They love us just as we are.

And we love them right back.

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Written by Jacqui Felgate.