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.
- 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.
- 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 Wagner 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.