Grieving Process and Pets: a different kind of Loss?

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

Marty TousleyAs 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.

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 complicatedthan 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 Trixieinsignificant: “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

BuddySo what is the most important advice I can give to a grieving animal loverDon’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.

1 thought on “Grieving Process and Pets: a different kind of Loss?”

  1. Dear Marty, we had to say good by to our most loved and cherished golden retriever, Maggie of 13 years on Saturday night. I am so struggling with my grief. It’s everything I have been reading on your website . I was very close with her. A lot of Love. I am so wore out emotionally. We had a veterinarian come to our house to euthanize her. Maggie had a grand mal seizure earlier that day. My husband and I never left her. We laid on the kitchen floor for 4 hours loving her. She gave me 3 kisses and laid her head on my husbands hand. When the vet arrived I opened the front door to let her in and Maggie found the strength to walk to the front door and then collapsed. Her legs were weak. It was there where she was evaluated. I asked if Maggie was ready. The vet said she doesn’t want to live like this. We had to let her go. Her spirit is free now. My pain is deep. My loss is significant. Your insight and gift of support is valuable to me as I go through my grief. I have been crying a month before Maggie past. She had a really bad ear infection we were treating for a couple months. It really hurt her and upset me watching her in pain. We did everything we could. It must of been a tumor they thought. She was too old to run the tests necessary. It started to affect her eye and sinuses. Do you think Maggie knew why the vet came? I told her earlier when she was ready we would get help for her to cross to Rainbow bridge. Did she understand? Marty, my life will be forever changed. I will always love her. I want her and my last golden’s ashes to be buried with me when I pass. I will be cremated as well. Thank you so much for what you do for others. Kim

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