I question whether experiences of such severe loss can be quantified and compared. Loss is loss, whatever the circumstances. All losses are bad, only bad in different ways. No two losses are ever the same. Each loss stands on its own and inflicts a unique kind of pain. What makes each loss so catastrophic is its devastating, cumulative, and irreversible nature . . . So whose loss is worse, hers or mine? It is impossible to give an answer. Both are bad, but bad in different ways. ~ Jerry Sittser in A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Loss
A while ago I received the following e-mail message from a visitor to my Grief Healing website:
I'm sure you are a lovely person. You’re a hospice volunteer who’s gone through grief yourself and I am sorry for your losses. But I am grieving, too. I lost both of my parents 3 years ago and they died just 9 days apart. They were sick and elderly (89 and 85) and had been in the hospital for about a month when they passed away. I can tell you that it was horrible; more horrible than you can ever imagine. I watched them suffer and then lost them both. Since then, I've also lost two aunts and my favorite uncle. With my aunt's death in August, I really had a setback in the grieving process and I finally decided that I better get some professional help from a psychiatrist. I did and he put me on antidepressants. Now, on to the reason I’m writing. And I don't mean to attack you, I really don't mean it like that. I just want you to know that I don't think that your grief sites should include grief over lost pets. I like animals but I promise you that I never cried every day for three years over a dog no matter how much I liked him. It is just somehow belittling to have grief over a pet included in the same sentence as grief over a loved person. I use this point—and I don't have a child in Afghanistan, thank goodness—but let's just say that a parent is suffering from the loss his child in the war, and comes looking for help and finds himself or herself on a website where somebody is lumping in the loss of a pet with that of losing a child. I don't think it would be very well received. Of course, you have the right to put anything you want on your website and I know that. I just think maybe you should rethink the pet thing—please. Again, this is none of my business but you have obviously put a lot of time in this site, and you apparently are truly caring person, and this is just not right. Thank you for your time.A similar concern was expressed by a bereaved mother who posted a comment on my Facebook page.
I'd like to share with all of you the response I sent to my website visitor:
Please accept my deepest sympathy for all the deaths you've endured these last few years. I cannot imagine how difficult this must have been for you, and I am so very sorry for all your losses.
That said, I also want to thank you for writing to me to express directly to me your strong feelings about my addressing the death of a cherished pet on the same Web site as the death of a person. Because you were kind enough to write to me, you've given me the opportunity to explain why I've done this, and I greatly appreciate that. I don't know that you will find my explanation acceptable, but I will offer it anyway, just for your consideration.
First, I have indeed worked for a hospice, but not as a volunteer. I am a certified grief counselor who was with Hospice of the Valley's Bereavement Service in Phoenix, Arizona for 17 years. If you're willing to get past the home page of my Grief Healing website and explore some of the other pages there, you will find more information about me and my professional (as well as personal) background and experience, and learn how I came to be interested in the field of bereavement. (You can click on the button labeled Martha Tousley at the foot of my home page. See also My Personal Profile right here on my blog's home page.)
As I state on my site's home page, I am an animal lover too, and for nearly 15 years I volunteered my time facilitating a monthly pet loss support group for the Companion Animal Association of Arizona and later for Hospice of the Valley (HOV). I am proud to say that today, HOV continues to be one of the few hospices in the country that offers a support group for pet loss. HOV’s Bereavement Service recognizes that the grief that accompanies pet loss is just as worthy of our support as any other type of loss.
You are not alone in your belief that pet loss does not begin to compare to the death of a person, and it may surprise you to learn that I agree with you completely. It is fruitless to compare the magnitude of one person’s loss with that of another, regardless of what has been lost.
Is it harder to lose a spouse than a parent? Would losing a child be worse than losing a spouse? Would a sudden, unexpected death be harder to accept than a long, slow, painful one? And which is worse: loss of a leg, or loss of an arm? Would you rather lose your eyesight or your hearing? These losses are neither better nor worse, harder or easier, one from another – rather, they are each different from one another. There is not a person among us who can answer any of these questions honestly unless and until that particular loss has happened to us, and even then, it would be different for each one of us, depending on our own individual circumstances and the meaning we attach to what we have lost. The simple fact of the matter is that the worst loss is the loss that a person is experiencing now. Grief is the normal, human reaction to loss, and the greater the attachment to that which is lost, the stronger the grief one experiences in the wake of that loss. It is the price we pay for love.
As a grief counselor, it is not my place to tell another what he or she is "allowed" to love, nor is it my place to pass judgment on that person’s attachments. Grief happens following all sorts of losses—not just death. We grieve the loss of a limb, for example, when a leg is amputated, or the loss of a job we've loved, or the loss of our family home when it and everything in it burns to the ground. A pet who has died may be the only friend we had in this world—or if we are living with a disability, that animal may have been our helper or even our eyes or our ears. Whatever the role a pet played in our lives, if we are deeply attached to an animal companion, we will grieve long and hard when that animal dies. Like any other loss, pet loss is real and for some, extremely painful. Is it different from human loss? Certainly. But that does not mean that it is not worthy of grief, and it does not mean that the bereaved animal lover should feel ashamed of his need for our compassion, understanding, and support.
I am passionate in my belief that we in the mental health professions owe it to our colleagues, and to the public we serve, to do whatever we can to educate ourselves about this important issue of pet loss. For far too long we have disenfranchised bereaved animal lovers, and left them with nowhere to take their grief.
This is why more than ten years ago I decided to address both person loss and animal loss on my Grief Healing website and more recently here in my blog, and I am well aware that mine may be the only Web sites to do so. I'm also well aware that some people may find this offensive—but if and when I am asked (as you were courteous enough to ask me in your e-mail) I am more than happy to explain. I believe that my own Grief Healing website, this blog and our Grief Healing Discussion Groups serve an educational purpose as well as offering information, comfort and support to the bereaved, because all three sites bring together people who are suffering from all types of loss, including pet loss. Anyone who is open-minded enough and willing to read the personal accounts of the bereaved animal lovers posting in our Loss of a Pet Forum simply cannot doubt the pain these people are feeling. I believe that one of the greatest benefits of forums such as these is that, by posting, reading and responding to the messages written there, we'll all come to a greater understanding of the grief that accompanies all the different kinds of loss we may experience in life, and we’ll learn to be more caring, accepting and tolerant of one another.
So I cordially invite you to do two things, if you are willing.
First, read some of the articles I’ve written on the topic of pet loss. (You’ll find all of them listed here, but you might begin with Pet Loss: Why Does It Hurt So Much?)
Second, spend some time reading some of the posts in the Loss of a Pet Forum on our Grief Healing Discussion Groups website.
If after doing this you still feel offended by the work that I am doing or how I am doing it, then all I can do is offer my sincere apology to you, and assure you that offending a person in mourning is the very last thing I would ever, ever want to do.
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. If you’d like Grief Healing Blog updates delivered right to your inbox, you’re cordially invited to subscribe to our weekly Grief Healing Newsletter. Sign up here.
- Comparing Grief: A Useless Endeavor by Eleanor Haley
- If Grief Is A Contest, I Win by Melissa Gould
- Pet Loss: Is It A Different Grief? by Marty Tousley
- Species of Grief by Meghan Daum
- The Death of Pet Can Hurt As Much As The Loss of a Relative by Joe Yonan
- Valuing Animals and Valuing People by Jessica Pierce
- When Grief Seems Insignificant by Comparison by Marty Tousley
- Why Losing A Dog Can Be Harder Than Losing A Relative or Friend by Frank T. McAndrew