Monday, July 18, 2022

In Grief: When Pet Loss Feels Worse Than Person Loss

[Reviewed and updated March 5, 2024]

Nobody can fully understand the meaning of love unless he's owned a dog. A dog can show you more honest affection with a flick of his tail than a man can gather through a lifetime of handshakes.
  ~ Gene Hill

A reader writes:  I am totaly amazed with myself. My beloved dog got taken away very suddenly a week ago, hit and run, and I am a basket case over that. I know pets are not human, but does that make the loss any less? I am so sad I can really die. I know people say get over it he's only a dog, but he wasn't only a dog he was litterally my best friend. My grandfather passed away yesterday, and I feel so confused.

We knew Grandpa had cancer and was suffering and that he would pass way soon, but I feel like he will be taken care of and is in a place where the pain is no more, and is smiling and laughing with friends and family. So why can't I feel the same emotion for a human being that has been in my life for 40 years, comparied to my dog that I only had for three years? Am I totally that much of an unfeeling person? And I did love my grandpa very much, I just never really expressed it much. He was not that type of a person that showed affection much, but in my heart I know he loved me.

My response: My dear, you have just described one of the most common reasons why animal lovers feel so guilty for feeling so deeply the pain of pet loss ~ and why it is often so difficult to find the empathy, understanding and support we so desperately need from others. I want to assure you that you are neither unfeeling nor abnormal in how you are reacting to both of these deaths. I'd like to tell you ~ and others who may be reading this ~ why.

Since your grandfather was an older man suffering from terminal cancer, his death did not come unexpectedly, and probably it was viewed by your family as a relief from his suffering. As you say, now you can think of him as being in a better place, free of pain, smiling and laughing, reunited with friends and family. That is not to say that those of you who are left behind aren’t sad that he has died and won’t still miss him terribly ~ but chances are that you knew and accepted that he was dying, and may consider his death to be within the natural order of such things.

Your dog’s death, on the other hand, was very sudden, unexpected, the result of a brutal hit-and-run accident, and came at a fairly early age in the life span of a dog. It’s also important to recognize that the relationship you had with your dog (whom you yourself describe as your best friend) is different from the one you had with your grandfather ~ not better than, but different from.

People I've encountered in pet grief support groups are often shocked to discover how bad they feel when their pets die. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard 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.”

The simple truth is that the love we receive from our beloved pets is different from the love we share with our fellow human beings. With their constant presence, availability and devotion, pets may be our best source of unconditional love, becoming for many of us the ideal child, parent, mate or friend. They listen without judgment or reproach, and never give advice. They accept us exactly as we are, regardless of how we look or feel or behave. They forgive us readily and never hold grudges against us. No matter how much change we must endure in our unpredictable lives, our pets are always there for us. If we allow them to do so, our pets are more than willing to weave themselves into the very fabric of our daily lives. We live and relax in each other’s company. They are there when we awaken in the morning, rely on us to toilet, feed, water, exercise, groom and play with them, greet us joyfully when we come home to them and may even sleep with us in our beds at night. We touch them, stroke them, pet them, hug them, kiss them, tell them our troubles and share our deepest secrets with them. 

No matter how close you were to your grandfather, I would venture to guess that none of these statements would describe the relationship you had with your grandfather. Unless he lived with you, you probably didn’t see your grandpa every single day either, and were accustomed to loving him in his absence, whereas your dog was with you constantly, and you grew accustomed to loving him in his presence. Think of what a drastic change this is when your dog is no longer such an intimate part of your daily life. Is it any wonder that you miss him so much? Everywhere you go in your home, you're probably bumping into reminders that your dog is no longer there.

Most pet owners today ~ and certainly the animal lovers I've met in my pet loss support groups ~ regard their pets as members of the family. And how we react to the death of any family member ~ human or animal ~ depends to a large extent on the part they’ve played in our daily lives, the significance of our relationships with them, and the strength of our attachments to them.

I don’t know how your beloved dog came into your life, but you may be interested to learn that you’re likely to be even more highly attached to your dog if you’ve nursed him through a chronic illness or rescued him from certain death; if you associate him with important times in your life or link him with significant others who are no longer with you; and if you’ve relied on him to support you or get you through a crisis.

How attached we become to our animals is as individual as we are, but the bonds that we have are valid, worthy of understanding, and serve to explain the intense pain we feel when those bonds are broken.

And so, my dear, I want to gently suggest that you stop beating yourself up for feeling so acutely the pain of losing your beloved dog, and stop comparing the pain of that loss to how you’re feeling about the death of your grandfather. These are two very different losses, and both are equally worthy of your grief. You are the only one who knows how very much your dog meant to you, and you are the only one who can measure how very much you have lost. Don’t let anyone tell you what you should or should not be feeling about any of this.

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Image by lokalsportessen from Pixabay

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