Monday, May 19, 2014

Pet Loss: Is It A Different Kind of Grief?

[Reviewed and updated May 25, 2024]

The difference between friends and pets is that friends we allow into our company, pets we allow into our solitude.  ~ Robert Brault

As one who for many years has supported bereaved animal lovers as well as people mourning the loss of human loved ones, I’m often asked how losing a pet might differ from losing a person. Is the grieving process any different, and if so, how?

Having worked as a grief counselor with both kinds of loss, and having experienced both kinds of loss myself, I can say without reservation that the grief that accompanies pet loss is no different from that of losing a cherished friend or special member of the family. As I often tell my clients, love is love, loss is loss, and pain is pain. Grief is a natural, spontaneous response to the loss of someone dearly loved. Without a doubt, the loss of a loved animal companion and the feelings associated with that loss are real, and they deserve a time of grief, mourning and healing.

Although I've loved and lost a variety of pets over the years, it was only in my adult years that I came to realize and appreciate the enormous joy my companion animals have brought me. But it was the death of my very special little dog Muffin in 1986 that set me on my present course. I was astounded to find that I was totally unprepared for the whole experience ~ not only for my dog's sudden and unexpected death and what to do with his remains afterward, but also for the intensity of my reactions.

I wasn't unfamiliar with grief ~ by that time in my life I had already lost to death a newborn infant, my father, my mother-in-law, my sister-in-law and several close friends. In my practice as a therapist I had been studying death and dying and specializing in bereavement counseling for many years.

But it was the devastating death of this particular little creature ~ to whom I'd become so strongly attached ~ which made me realize how profound the loss of a beloved animal friend can be.

Trying to sort through my feelings and better understand my own reactions, I began to investigate the nature of people's attachment to their animals, reading all I could find on the human-animal bond and learning about other people's reactions to the loss of their companion animals.

I soon came to realize how important it is to understand and respect the level of attachment between people and their terminally ill or deceased pets, the role the animals played in their lives, and the significance of the loss from their point of view.

Over time, I began to understand and accept my own profound loss and was able to find meaning in the midst of my grief. Today, my work with bereaved animal lovers combines my background in counseling with my respect for the bond people have with their animals, and my own experiences of healing from the loss of both human and animal loved ones.

While it is true that everyone grieves differently (according to their age, gender, personality, culture, value system, past experience with loss and available support) some grief reactions are fairly universal, and therefore predictable and even manageable, once we understand what is happening to us.

Although the process itself is the same, it has been my experience that bereaved animal lovers tend to work their way through their grief more quickly than those who have lost human loved ones. I think this is because the relationships we have with our beloved pets are far less complicated than those we have with human beings, and so we tend to bring less emotional “baggage” with us when we mourn the loss of a pet.

Nevertheless, there are certain differences that can make pet loss more difficult than the loss of a person.

For example, those suffering pet loss may encounter the ignorant, cruel reactions of those who trivialize their loss as insignificant: “It was just a dog (cat, horse, bird, etc.); you can always get another.” For some, the insensitivity of others is more painful than grief from the actual loss. In addition, while this has changed somewhat in our culture over the last 20 years or so, pet loss is still one of those disenfranchised losses, in that it is not socially validated, publicly mourned or supported (with a funeral or wake, for example), so there may be no encouragement to acknowledge and honor the important role the animal played in a person’s life, and little if any support as the bereaved animal lover comes to terms with the reality of loss.

Another significant difference is the matter of euthanasia. Deciding with a veterinarian that, for reasons of compassion and mercy, it’s time to end an animal’s suffering and give that animal a dignified and painless death can be one of the most difficult choices an animal lover ever has to make. For most people, taking on the responsibility to make the euthanasia decision is an awesome one that engenders massive guilt.

I firmly believe that participating in a pet loss support group is one of the most effective ways to deal with the guilt that accompanies the euthanasia decision. When the story is shared and several people affirm that, given the same set of circumstances, they would have acted the same way, it offers the one feeling guilty a powerful “group absolution” for whatever sins (real or imagined) have been committed.

The issues I've found to be most common in my groups are these:
  • People are shocked at how sad they feel, and are overwhelmed by the intensity of their feelings, especially those of sorrow (feeling that they've lost a very close friend or member of the family, often noting in amazement that they didn't feel this bad when a human relative had died); anger (at themselves for not doing enough; at the animal for leaving them; at the vet for failing to save the animal; at God for letting the animal get sick and die, etc.) and guilt (over what they did or failed to do for their animals).
  • They are relieved to learn that they're not going crazy, that grief is a normal response to losing someone they love, that only they can know the special place in their life and in their heart that was occupied by their animal, and only they can measure how very much they've lost. The more significant the bond between them, the greater the feeling of loss.
Sometimes a support group isn’t enough to meet an individual’s needs. In such cases, I will encourage that person to seek individual counseling.

Seeing a professional counselor is appropriate if the person
  • feels uncomfortable in one’s own skin or is unable to function normally
  • has reactions from which s/he can get no relief, or over which s/he feels no control
  • wonders if his or her responses are normal, or if they've gone on too long
  • has thoughts or feelings s/he feels guilty about or is reluctant to share with anyone else
An individual should seek professional help immediately if the person
  • feels no grief reaction at all after a major loss
  • has a history of mental illness, drug or alcohol abuse
  • has few sources of support
  • sees life as hopeless and is feeling suicidal
So what is the most important advice I can give to a grieving animal lover? Don’t bear this burden all alone! Find someone you trust to talk to about it! Sometimes we wish that others would just be there for us without our having to ask. Unfortunately, when it comes to pet loss, that's not likely to happen. It's not so much that others are uncaring; if they're not animal lovers and they've never had pets, there simply is no way for them to fully understand the attachment we had to the pet who died, the significance of our loss and the depth of our pain. They may unintentionally minimize our loss or, not wanting to see us hurt, discourage us from expressing our grief. Their insensitivity can be even more painful for us than grief from the actual loss. As my friend and colleague Teresa Whalen wisely says, we need to remember that grief is indifferent to the species lost. A person's grief is legitimate and real regardless of anyone else's comments, behavior or opinions.

In such cases it's important to seek the support of those who understand our experience and accept our feelings (close friends, family members, fellow animal lovers, support groups, helplines, Internet Web sites, message boards and chat rooms, articles and books on pet loss, and bereavement counseling – preferably with a counselor who is sensitive to pet loss).

Some of us may be more comfortable in the role of giving care than in receiving it. We may see the need for counseling as a sign of weakness or of mental illness, and thus are reluctant to seek the help of a support group or a professional counselor. But it takes strength and courage to let ourselves be cared for, and we need not bear our sorrow all alone. Even if we're grieving in a normal, healthy way, it is wise to use all the resources available to help recover our balance and put our life back together again.

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