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Mark Tillinger

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You Don't Get a Day Off When Your Dog Dies

Posted: 08/02/11 06:28 PM ET

I have been a dog lover all my life. In fact, the love and loss of a dog changed my life. For me and for many other people, the love of a pet can approach the depth and intensity of even the deepest human relationships. For many people, a pet is their only companion. For some, a dog or a cat is like a child they never had. For me, it is about the innocent, pure and unconditional love that the dogs in my life have given me, and that I have given them in return. In fact, as I think about the stages of my life, from my earliest memories until today, each has, in many ways, been shaped by the love of a dog. I feel extraordinarily blessed to have had so many dogs touch my life with such depth and impact.

With the deep love of a pet, however, comes the inevitable. When our pets get sick, or when they die, we experience the most human of emotions -- worry, compassion, fear, uncertainty, and ultimately, extreme grief. The depth of these emotions easily match the depth of the love we feel for our pets, and the loss of a beloved pet can feel as intensely sad as losing a family member or a close friend.

What can make this traumatic experience even more difficult is when other people fail to recognize the depth of your loss. You don't get a day off when your dog dies. Bereavement benefits are extended in the event of the death of an immediate family member -- and that is defined as a parent, parent in-law, brother, sister, spouse, child, grandparent, domestic partner, grandchild, or person in an equivalent relationship -- but not the family pet.

Our animals are with us through thick and thin. They comfort us when we're sad and they brighten our days when they greet us with delight each and every time we walk through our doors. They go where we take them and they're happy to do so, just as long as they're by our sides. They witness our arguments, our challenges, our milestones and our losses. We can be at our very worst and they do not judge us. You are always perfectly you in the eyes of your pet. Someone once described their dog as a heart with fur and I think many of us feel that way. With the domestication of animals, it seems that their main (and in some cases, only) purpose, is simply to love -- so how is the gravity of the illness or loss of such an integral part of lives not understood by all?

As I have embarked on a new phase of my life inspired by the love and loss of the most special dog I have ever known, a beautiful Bernese Mountain Dog named Riedel who lost her battle cancer two years ago, one of my goals was to create a community of support for people whose pets have been diagnosed with this terrible disease. The depth of pain I felt when I lost Riedel illuminated the extraordinary power of our relationships with our pets. It has helped to intensify my desire, frankly my need, to do what I can to help people extend their time with their pets, and when the inevitable happens, to help them deal with their grief in a supportive and dignified way - and most importantly, to know that they're not alone. This is why I started The Riedel & Cody Fund.

Cancer affects twelve million dogs and cats each year -- that means millions of pet owners are confronted with this devastating news and are left to deal with both pain as well as the sometimes insurmountable costs required to pay for treatment. Dealing with a sick pet is an excruciating process. I hope that through Riedel's legacy and my own experience, I can offer some relief to make this painful road a little bit easier for people and their four-legged family members.