But I Didn’t Get to Say Good-bye: Coping with Sudden Traumatic Multiple Pet Loss

kathryn marocchino kathryn's korner pet loss the nikki foundation for pets Mar 29, 2024
Animal Hospice Group - Kathryn Marocchino, this is a photo of her friend Joseph and his family of dogs who she writes about in this blog article - from left to right:  Polar (White Maltese Mix), Pancho (Chihuahua-Dachshund mix), Snoopy (Survivor, now with Joseph), Snowball (White Blind Maltipoo), Joseph Hayden, Capulet (Yorkie, held aloft by Joseph), Mattie (White Blind Poodle), and Peaches (Foster Survivor, now back with her family)

But I Didn’t Get to Say Good-bye: Coping with Sudden Traumatic Multiple Pet Loss

By Kathryn D. Marocchino, PhD, FT
Animal Hospice Group Founder and Instructor/Lecturer

On March 5 of this year 2024, The Nikki Hospice Foundation for Pets, in partnership with the Humane Society of the North Bay (HSNB), was scheduled to resume its annual Pet Remembrance Candle Lighting (PRCL) in Vallejo, California, after an absence of three years.

An increasingly popular non-denominational event, our Candle Lighting gathering allows grieving pet parents to mourn their deceased or lost companion animals in a safe and non-judgmental setting, where they can openly express their feelings of grief and loss among like-minded individuals and animal lovers.

First launched in 2006, it continued unabated until 2020—our last public gathering before the COVID-19 pandemic took over our lives and changed them forever.

Tragically, however, things did not go as planned.

Although we had agreed on finally restoring the ceremony to an “in-person” format (after three years of asking our participants to light a “virtual” candle to commemorate their companion animals), our best efforts were abruptly and unpredictably thwarted by a “perfect storm” of negative synergy.

First came the news that we had lost our esteemed pianist and long-time friend, Tim Heney, who had uplifted our ceremony for years with his unparalleled musical accompaniment. Then, within days, our website ceased functioning, preventing us from communicating with the public at a very crucial moment in our calendar and compelling us to enact major platform upgrades as quickly as possible.

Although it was operational again in a matter of weeks, we soon realized we now had a very limited timeframe to work with, but suddenly, even more devastating news arrived. An electrical fire had destroyed the home of our HSNB co-partner Joseph Hayden while he was away helping a neighbor, and had taken the lives of five of his rescue dogs, miraculously sparing only two—one of his own and a little foster dog he had been caring for.

There was little left of the house and almost nothing of its contents. In light of these appalling circumstances and out of respect for Joseph’s sensibilities during what had to have been the most stressful, vulnerable moment of his life, we decided to postpone our event (annual Pet Remembrance Candle Lighting) one more time, while still promising the public a face-to-face return in 2025. Virtual candles had become “normal” again, whether we liked it or not.

Now, the most demanding part began—helping Joseph navigate these multiple losses as he tried to work his way through unthinkable grief. He had lost everything he owned, including irreplaceable mementos of his Italian parents as well as special items from their years in Spain and Italy, but nothing compared to the loss of his “children,” those five little animal souls whose age and infirmities merely added to the intensity of the grief we all felt.

The dogs, Joseph was told that day by the fire marshal, had been prevented by the flames from exiting either the sliding back door, left fully open, or their adjacent doggy door. Terrified, and with two of them unable to see, they had panicked and sought refuge in what they thought were the safest corners of the house—under a bed or a couch. One by one, the dogs were brought out by the firefighters, limp and lifeless. All had succumbed to smoke inhalation, except Snoopy—the youngest and healthiest of the group—and Peaches, a foster who was to be returned to her family two days later.

This is the horrible reality of sudden traumatic multiple pet loss, one of the worst nightmares that can befall a pet parent and one of the most challenging issues facing pet loss counselors and animal bereavement specialists.

Photo of Joseph and his dogs sitting on the outdoor porch patio furniture.

Photo from left to right: Polar (White Maltese Mix), Pancho (Chihuahua-Dachshund mix), Snoopy (Survivor, now with Joseph), Snowball (White Blind Maltipoo), Joseph Hayden, Capulet (Yorkie, held aloft by Joseph), Mattie (White Blind Poodle), and Peaches (Foster Survivor, now back with her family)

Understanding the magnitude of the sudden loss is often complex in and of itself unless one has experienced it directly. Still, those of us who work in the field do what we can to provide what solace and comfort are cogitable in the face of such adversity.

Routinely, we work to help human survivors feel acknowledged and validated in their grief and verify that they have “safe spaces” in which to express their emotions freely. We also provide a variety of external resources for coping and encourage the use of rituals and memorialization to honor their deceased animal companions. We check in with them regularly to make certain they are adequately practicing self-care and we aim to ensure they have access to practical support from friends and family, especially when bare necessities have been destroyed alongside cherished lives.

In Joseph’s case, his physical and emotional well-being, and that of his sole surviving companion animal, became the focal point of everyone’s efforts that week, as the local community rallied around him in an extraordinary outpouring of compassion to assist him in various ways—from procuring him clothing, furniture, and a temporary home to cremating his beloved animals at no cost and making sure he and Snoopy felt safe, secure and loved. Donations also began arriving at the HSNB in memory of the “Hayden Five,” so shelter animals could be helped in the name of the sweet dogs who had died.

Since the fire, Joseph and I have spoken several times, and reassuringly, he now feels that sometime this summer he may be able to hold a small private memorial for his “babies” at his new rental because this is what he feels he needs to do to begin walking the long winding path towards healing.

But at random moments, his mind keeps visualizing haunting and disturbing images triggered by questions such as, “What were their final moments like?”—a common behavioral pattern in this kind of loss that compels the brain to imagine what it doesn’t truly know but feels the most.

And through it all runs the disquieting, incessant recitation of the most poignant regret of all:

“But I didn’t get to say good-bye.”

It can be problematic for anyone who has not walked in their shoes to fully comprehend how human survivors manage to cope, daily, with multiple losses on this kind of a scale—relentlessly exacerbated, to make matters worse, by the intrusive “should’ve,” could’ve,” would’ve” thoughts that gnaw at the minds of all the bereaved but even more so in the aftermath of great traumatic events.

Such sudden, and sometimes inexplicable tragedies can easily lead to acute stress, sleeping disorders, physiological ailments, depression, symptoms of both physical and emotional shock, and in some cases, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), though the event itself was not necessarily witnessed or experienced. Add to this feelings of guilt, extreme sadness, and even anger, and the newly bereaved may have difficulty functioning.

And what are we to say about the surviving animals who endured tremendous fear, or even injury, and now must gradually learn to re-adapt to a strange and often frightening environment devoid of their friends and full of new challenges?

Immediately after the fire, Joseph stayed at the home of some nearby friends but had trouble sleeping and would awaken at the slightest sound. When their fire alarm enigmatically went off two nights later, he rushed out into the backyard half asleep but in sheer panic, mistaking the acrid smell from what was left of his charred belongings for the flare-up of a new inferno—a post-fire distress response born of heightened anxiety and hyper-vigilance that can be long-lasting and hard to subdue.

Snoopy, terror-stricken as he must have been amid the flames that day, exhibited his own frantic behavior. Trembling uncontrollably after he was rescued, he clung to Joseph like a child, refusing to be left alone for even a minute. They have now become inseparable.

In the wake of sudden traumatic multiple pet loss, bereaved survivors also need to be encouraged to practice self-compassion and ”meaning-making” in whatever shape or form that may take. For even though the initial report laid the blame for the blaze squarely on faulty wiring inside a wall socket on the outer deck—something Joseph could not possibly have known nor prevented—it is the existential “why and wherefore” of the event itself that continues to elude him and still keeps him awake at night.

This is the pitiless task of having to cope with any great sudden loss: wanting to make sense of the senseless and seeking out the “pourquoi” of our calamities, as if the answers to these questions could alleviate the burden, making the pain more bearable.

Usually, there are no tangible answers.

Yet, many bereaved pet parents feel a compulsive need to ask these questions. Blaming themselves or others, harboring repetitive thoughts, experiencing a profound sense of helplessness, and living with the heartache of not having been able to say good-bye are all symptoms of a deeply troubling malaise that will require a good deal of time to work through.

Often, however, finding what Joseph refers to as the “saving grace” in situations like these allows the bereaved to latch on to a psychological lifebuoy that can help mitigate the immense grief—no matter how minute or inconsequential it may appear to be. For him, that “saving grace” was the fact that all the dogs had died from smoke inhalation but had not been burned, enabling him to recognize and hold their bodies before relinquishing them. And that was enormously comforting to him.

When disaster strikes to this extent, bereaved survivors often instinctively seek common ground with anyone else who might have suffered the same kind of loss, in a desperate search to share their story with someone who can better relate to their plight. Joseph was no exception, but there wasn’t anyone in the immediate vicinity who had been subjected to this particular kind of trauma and consequently, he had no specialized support group to turn to. At this point, I felt it might be beneficial for him to read the beautiful memoir written by David Congalton, a well-known radio talk show host and animal advocate, who had suffered a similar tragedy twenty-five years ago when he lost five animals simultaneously in a house fire. Joseph promptly bought the book and began reading it. Three Cats, Two Dogs: One Journey Through Multiple Pet Loss, won the 2000 Merial Human-Animal Bond Award and laid bare the gut-wrenching anguish Congalton and his wife endured throughout the ordeal, not the least of which was dealing with disenfranchised grief when some close friends and family could neither understand nor appreciate the depth of the couple’s attachment to the animals who had perished.

Through this new comrade in sorrow, Joseph is beginning to find the words that allow him to share the agony of sleepless nights, the unremitting remorse of what could have been but never will be, and yes, Congalton’s ultimate message that despite everything, we must keep our hearts wide open, because love is always worth it.

But there will be more soul work to be done, as Carol Staudacher, author of A Time to Grieve, has quietly been telling us since 1994:

“You don’t heal from the loss of a loved one because time passes; you heal because of what you do with the time.”

As I write this, Joseph has already made tremendous strides in overcoming what could have become a paralyzing sense of defenselessness or worse yet, an overwhelming desire to get away from it all. He has resumed work with a vengeful zeal that does honor to his determination and has resumed rowing and kayaking, as well as hiking, playing the piano, and spending time in peaceful places that have a way of calming the breath. He is once again devoting time to the causes that are most meaningful to him.

True to his animal-loving nature, Joseph has already welcomed Bonnie, a little visually impaired rescue dog, into his household, so Snoopy (and he) can have a new companion. By degrees, he is doing the hard but redeeming work of grief and it is doing wonders for both him and the animals who are now redefining his life—animals who will transform him with their effervescent personalities and make him whole again, animals who will fill his days and nights with all the small sentimental quirks that define the precious time we spend in their company, animals who will teach him anew that life is short but still worth living—every single moment. Survivors of sudden traumatic multiple pet loss like Joseph, who have faced unthinkable tragedy, offer all of us an opportunity to give reassurance whenever it is needed, lavish kindness in every conceivable way, and hold silent space when words are superfluous, regardless of our training or who we are—and none of us ever stop learning or improving our abilities to do so.

Clinical psychologist Ellen Pulleyblank Coffey summed it up perfectly when she acknowledged,

“My work with my clients is now built on what I have learned: to bear pain by paying attention to it; to witness the suffering of others by staying present and doing only what is possible; to stop expecting rational explanations for the unexplainable; to let go of control of the uncontrollable, and to focus less on our responsibility to ourselves, and more on what we have to offer each other.”

These are golden, humbling words.

Recently, Joseph uploaded a video of himself, Snoopy, and Bonnie on his Facebook page. A wistful, teasing shadow of a smile crosses his face, and the dogs seem radiantly happy and completely present in the moment. Bonnie is ecstatic as she sniffs the breeze and closes her eyes, and Snoopy—Joseph’s last living link with his departed “children”—gingerly explores the boundaries of their new rental home.

His post reads, “Backyard sun with Bonnie and adventuring Snoopy . . . Moments like this keep me sane and remind me of great memories of the before time.”

This is the bitter-sweet beauty of continuing bonds and the staying power of remembrance—that as we stumble forward through our grief and slowly emerge again into the light of the sun, there will always be “the before time” to help us recall who we were and what we lost. It is our fate as humans and the price we pay for loving the short-lived sentient beings who share our lives.

How we each choose to face this kind of tragedy will eventually depend on how we envision our role in the universe and what we think we stand to gain, if anything, from “suffering.” These are very personal and individual decisions that more than likely will be affected by our own belief systems, our moral values, and our life choices.

Regardless of how we do this, however, adding meaning to traumatic events can enable us to cope with the greatest suffering, and if inspired by “the before time,” which invites us to feel joy and regret in the same breath, we may come around to finding and embracing the paradox, as Teresa of Calcutta did, “that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.”

Making such a leap of faith can be enormously difficult, and we must never lose sight of the fact that there is no absolute answer to such a cosmic issue—but the search itself never ceases to be worthwhile.

This ability to mature through suffering and trauma, referred to as post-traumatic growth, harkens back to antiquity and is centered on the belief that loss and suffering contain aspects that can lead to acute transformation, during which the bereaved learn lessons about themselves, others, and the world surrounding them.

Sudden traumatic multiple pet loss is no exception to this rule. By facing emotional shock and coming to terms with the reality of loss, these human survivors can re-evaluate their former assumptions, adjust their beliefs, and sometimes fundamentally change their understanding of the world as they know it.

There can even be potential for spiritual growth that may not have manifested itself previously but now leads the bereaved to a broader acceptance of spirituality, in both human and animal terms. And many of them will arrive at such an understanding, no matter how they go about reaching the end of that journey.

For now, and for some time to come—between the sleeplessness and despair that often punctuate the long, agonizing nights of bereaved pet parents like Joseph—we simply need to let voices other than our own speak in the silent darkness and fill the void with their wisdom, their eloquence, and their potency.

One such voice is that of Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī, who passionately asks us to recognize the indefinable inner longing and fear of abandonment we feel so strongly amid sorrow as the “return message” conveyed to us by a universe that we frequently cannot fathom but is, nonetheless, eternally present.

“The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.
Your pure sadness that wants help
is the secret cup.
Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.
There are love dogs no one knows the names of.
Give your life to be one of them.”



Photo of Dr. Kathryn D. Marocchino with a blue background.

Photo: Dr. Kathryn Marocchino, Animal Hospice Group Founder and Instructor/Lecturer

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Please show us all that you like this article by sharing, commenting, and/or giving this a "LIKE" on Facebook. Blog post banner: This is a photo of Dr. Marocchino's friend, Joseph and his family of dogs, who she writes about in this blog article - from left to right: Polar (White Maltese Mix), Pancho (Chihuahua-Dachshund mix), Snoopy (Survivor, now with Joseph), Snowball (White Blind Maltipoo), Joseph Hayden, Capulet (Yorkie, held aloft by Joseph), Mattie (White Blind Poodle), and Peaches (Foster Survivor, now back with her family). Click here to read Dr. Marocchino's previous blog posts.