LARGO — Gigi usually slept in the bathroom, where the floor was cool. But sometimes she curled into Denise Cardoso's bed, right on the pillow.
Cardoso bought a convertible because Gigi loved the rides. She read books out loud, because Gigi loved her voice. Gigi had her very own diva crown, sunglasses and an army of stuffed animals.
Gigi was 14. In October, the fluffy brown and white Sheltie died. Cardoso also lost her father and her brother recently. But losing Gigi affected her differently.
"I go home for lunch to let her out, and I'm in tears," said Cardoso, 49, who carries an envelope of Gigi's photos. "I feel sometimes like I am going crazy."
She's not alone.
"Most people don't want to discuss the loss of a loved one, whether it's two legged or four legged," said Crystal Finnis, a grief counselor with the Pinellas Animal Foundation. "There are people who pound the table and scream and yell. There are people who withdraw into their own little world."
Experts talked to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Tampa Bay's pet bereavement seminar Saturday in Largo. They discussed what to expect when a pet is near death. They discussed how to cope, and how to focus on memories.
Pets live in 71-million American homes. Some regard them as children. Constant companions. Therapists and best friends.
Sometimes, pets stir up passions.
Take Valentine, the late Labrador belonging to Sen. Jim King of Jacksonville. King helped change state law so humans can be buried with their animal's ashes. King plans to rest in peace with Valentine, a gift from his wife.
And take Trouble, Leona Helmsley's white Maltese. Trouble famously banked a $12-million trust from Helmsley's will when the billionaire died last year.
Skeptics scoff. Can an animal death really cause trauma? Cardoso admits many of her friends don't understand how she feels.
But Finnis says pet death can be more devastating than human death. Pets are often a mirror image of the owner — like the yappy next-door neighbor with the yappy little dog. They represent personal identity.
Humans are flawed. Grumpy. Rude. Irritable. But animals respond with love.
"I really believe that people don't know what to do with their pain," Finnis said.
Even the toughest types break down, said Keenan Knopke, president of Curlew Hills Pet Cemetery in Palm Harbor. His cemetery provides a final resting place for many police dogs, and he sees the officers who come to remember them. "We've watched grown men and ladies who every day carry a gun and stand on the front line for our safety bawl their eyes out," he said.
It's imperative to find a final place for your pet, Knopke said. Grief is normal, but you've got to move along and make a decision.
It doesn't have to be a cemetery. Sprinkle the ashes in your grass. Wear them in a piece of jewelry. Make a scrapbook. Once, Knopke buried a cockatiel in a Crest toothpaste box his back yard.
It's about having a place to return and reflect — however unsophisticated it may be.
"We've all flushed the fish," he said. "But we remember them."
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8857.