Monday, February 6, 2017

Pet Loss: A Disenfranchised Grief

If having a soul means being able to feel love and loyalty and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans. ~ James Herriot

You've just learned that your family's beloved pet is terminally ill. The vet gives your cherished companion less than a month to live. As the sad reality of losing this important member of your family sets in, a million thoughts race through your head.

Whether struggling with an animal companion's chronic illness, facing a decision about euthanasia, or mourning the loss of a cherished pet, you may be shocked and overwhelmed by the intensity of your reactions.
You may wonder if it is normal to feel the loss of a companion animal so deeply. Statements such as "I don't know what's wrong with me. I didn't feel this bad when my grandmother (acquaintance, friend, relative) died" are common. If this is your family's first encounter with death, you may be uncertain how to guide your children through the experience of losing a beloved pet.

As a grief counselor also specializing in pet loss, I've encountered and worked with numerous grieving animal lovers over the years, both individually and in groups. I find that the questions I'm asked most frequently are these:
  • Am I crazy to feel so sad (angry, guilty, depressed) about this? 
  • How do I cope with my feelings when my pet is lost or missing?
  • Why didn't I feel this bad when one of my relatives or friends died? 
  • How can I help my child(ren) deal with the loss of a pet?
  • How can I deal with the insensitive comments of others ("It was just an animal" or "You can always get another")? 
  • Do other animals in the household grieve? How can I help them? 
  • When there is no hope for recovery from illness or injury, should I choose euthanasia for my pet and, if so, how will I know when it's time? 
  • Should I be present during my pet's euthanasia? 
  • Do animals have souls, and do they go to Heaven? Will we be reunited someday? 
  • What should I do with my pet's remains after death? 
  • What can I do to memorialize my pet? 
  • Will I feel better if I get another pet right away? 
  • How long does grief last, and how long should I expect to feel this way? 
  • Should I be getting help with my grief, and what support is available to me? 
  • What should I do or say when my friend loses a pet?
Statistics indicate that companion animals are becoming more valued in our society than they were just 20 or 30 years ago. More people in the United States today have pets than children, and most animal lovers regard their pets as members of the family. How you will react to the death of your own loyal companions depends largely on the part they've played in your daily life, the significance of your relationships with them, and the strength of your attachments to them.

Because the normal life span of most companion animals is so much shorter than your own, it is predictable that one day you will experience the loss of a beloved pet. Since the emotional bonds developed between people and animals can be very deep and strong, it's important to understand that the pain experienced when those bonds are broken is real. The more significant the bond, the greater the feeling of loss you can expect. The grief experienced is no different from that of losing a cherished friend or special member of the family. It is a natural, spontaneous response to the loss of a significant relationship.

Nevertheless, when you lose a cherished pet you may find yourself feeling embarrassed or uneasy about publicly expressing your grief. Since there isn't much cultural support offered to grieving animal lovers in our society, you may end up feeling very isolated and alone. Statements such as "It was just an animal" illustrate how others fail to recognize this kind of loss as significant. Your relationship with the animal may be trivialized by those "well meaning" folks who say, "You can always get another." You may be left with the feeling that you don't have a legitimate right to grieve. Not all those in your circle may be as understanding, as available or as capable of helping as you need them to be. You may find that friends and relatives are finished with your grief long before you are done with the work of it or the need to talk about it.

So is there anything you can do to help yourself through the grief that accompanies the loss of a beloved companion animal? Yes! First, arm yourself (and those who care about you) with some knowledge and understanding about the normal grief process. Learn what reactions you can expect in grief, and find out what can be done to manage them.

It is also important to find an understanding, nonjudgmental listener with whom you can openly acknowledge your feelings and experiences, express and work through your pain, and come to terms with your loss. That can be a fellow animal lover who respects the relationship you had with your pet, a spouse, family member, friend, neighbor, colleague at work, clergy person, pet loss counselor or telephone help-line volunteer.

Visit your public library, local bookstore or pet supply center and ask for information and literature on pet loss and bereavement. You might ask your pet crematory or cemetery representative, your local animal shelter, veterinarian or pet grooming specialist if they know of any pet loss services in your community -- or even if they know of any recently bereaved clients who may be willing to talk with you. Look for pet loss services (such as pet loss support groups) advertised in your Yellow Pages or local newspaper, or posted on bulletin boards in your grocery store, library, church or school.  Using the keywords "pet loss," you can search the Internet for some wonderful pet loss sites, many of which offer telephone support, chat rooms and message boards, in addition to information and referral to other helpful resources. (See Helplines, Message Boards, Chats and Pet Loss Counseling)

Few of us are prepared to face the excruciating pain associated with the death of a beloved pet. Most of us think we cannot bear it, that to feel such sorrow is abnormal, as if we're going mad. We think there's something wrong with us, or something unnatural about our feelings.

Yet pain over the loss of an animal friend is as natural as the pain we would feel over the loss of any significant relationship. Our pets offer us a kind of loyalty, devotion and unconditional love that cannot be found in the more complicated relationships we have with relatives, friends and neighbors. Arming ourselves with some knowledge and understanding of what is normal under such circumstances and finding a safe place to express and work through our feelings of grief can help us cope with -- and even grow from -- the agony of pet loss.

Your feedback is welcome! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question, or share a tip, a related article or a resource of your own in the Comments section below.
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