16 Sep 2017
Your disenfranchised grief is real: Pet loss reality check

Your disenfranchised grief is real: Pet loss reality check

It’s easy to believe that mourning the loss of a pet is silly. After all, we don’t get bereavement time from work or school. Our friends and family don’t come to a wake or sit shiva with us when our animal companions are gone. From a societal perspective, we’re expected to go on with our lives like nothing happened. Yet, the grief that accompanies the death of a beloved pet is very real and painful. I'm here to tell you it is perfectly OK to mourn. In fact, it’s perfectly healthy. And you're not alone.

We Love Our Pets Like Family, So We Should Mourn

When humans die, there are formal memorial services. People send sincere expressions of sympathy. We are given a chance to grieve with all our hearts. However, the same comfort is rarely offered when the family member who died is a cherished hamster or bird or dog. This is especially difficult for the pet parent who did not expect to feel such overwhelming emotions at the loss of their animal child. This feeling is only compounded by those who dismiss the depth of this loss and suggest animals are commodities that can be replaced.

In the clinical world, this experience is known as disenfranchised grief (this book explains the concept further). It occurs when a pet parent's human companions don’t acknowledge the death as legitimate or fail to offer the same sincere compassion as they might after a human loved one dies. If you've felt this rejection or dismissal, you know that it may be impossible to fully take the time to grieve your loss without the support of others. As a result, your mourning period may become lonely and painful and elongated. If this has been your experience, I am truly sorry. 

If you're reading this, you likely feel as I do: that our pets aren’t just animals. They are bona fide members of our family. They bring joy to our lives, add structure to our days and help us stay active (if we walk them or play with them). Our fur babies are there for us when it feels like sometimes no one else this. I'll just say it: to me, Tia and Spartacus were just like my children and I feel the pain of their loss as I would any close member of my family. Far from being trivial and transient, the impact they had on me was profound and will last my lifetime.

The facts back me up. A 1988 study in the Journal of Mental Health Counseling suggested that many dog parents considered their dogs to be close family members, if not the closest. Another study, by Sandra Barker, the director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University, found that some people might grieve a pet far more than they might a sibling or even a parent, depending on relationship dynamics.

It's scary to admit, but I can relate.

When pets leave this world, we feel it deep in our souls. The grief from a pet loss can be very difficult.

For someone who has a therapy pet or service animal, the grief can be compounded by the loss of a companion who provided independence or emotional support. For people who live alone, their pets might be their only source of unconditional love.

Pet Grief Mental Health Tiny Pet Memories

Unconditional Love: Why Pet Loss is So Intense

So why is the pain so intense - sometimes even moreso than after losing a human friend or family member? Because pets offer the one things humans struggle to provide each other with: unconditional love.

  • They’re not afraid to express their love and devotion to us.
  • If we have a bad day, they’re with us.
  • They’re not worried that a client was mad at us today.
  • They don’t get angry when we forget to take out the garbage.
  • They love us, not matter what.
  • The only thing they ask of us is that we care for them and love them in return.

As pet parents, we are happy to return the same intense love and closeness.

  • We provide them with love and affection.
  • We care for their emotional and physical needs.
  • We worry about them like we might a child.
  • We look forward to being with them like we would a close friend.
  • We sacrifice to make them happy.
  • We go above and beyond to make them comfortable in their final days.

In fact, for some people who suffer from anxiety, depression, or any condition that makes it challenging to be social, animal companions are often the one constant in their lives. Seniors going through pet loss also feel it acutely.

When our pets are no longer there to sit by our sides, go for walks, or even wake us up the middle of the night for attention, the emptiness can become unbearable. One of my friends explained her pain this way:

"It took me several weeks to stop crying when I would come up the stairs and not see my cat waiting for me on the landing."

Losing a beloved animal companion means losing a touchpoint that gave meaning, purpose, and connection. 

How can anyone expect us not to mourn when our interrelatedness is so intense?

The Guilt Factor: Another Reason Pet Loss is So Intense

We’re pet parents for a reason. Sadly, for the most part, our pets' lives are much shorter than our own, so we have to say good-bye all too soon. With that loss, it’s not unusual to feel guilty, especially if the animal was younger or if the death was unexpected. It’s not unusual to ponder questions such as “did I miss something that could have helped sooner?”

A colleague of mine put her fears and anguish like this:

"I remember with my cat wondering how I missed the signs that she was sick before that fateful day when she appeared in pain and test results revealed end-stage renal failure. The “what ifs” and guilt consumed me for days. I wondered if I could have done something different. Even on the day we were scheduled to bring her in to be euthanized, I questioned if it was the right thing. Was this too soon? Should I get a second opinion? Am I being pressured by the vet to do this now? The only comfort I got was from on-line grief support, from people who shared how cats in particular don’t show they are sick until it’s too late."

Some humans to let the guilt consume them - which will only intensify the journey of bereavement. In our hearts, we want to replay what we would have done differently.

Don’t Hold Back the Grief from the Loss of a Pet

The bottom line---it’s OK to mourn the loss of a pet with all of your heart. Don’t be ashamed that you are crying or need to take some time to process this death. Too often people feel as though they’ll be perceived as weak if they accept the pain and let themselves release their emotions (I'm talking to you, men). Anyone who has ever had an animal companion can attest that the day we have to say goodbye comes too soon. Resisting grief is like resisting air when we need to breathe.  

And so, if you find yourself here, take care of yourself. You should be able to talk about how much you loved your pet and wish he or she was still part of your life. It’s vital to allow yourself to say this loss is real. This is all part of the healing, working through the grief. It’s OK to let go and continue to hold your pet in our heart while accepting that they are gone from this earth. When you start to let yourself feel those emotions and have a good cry whenever you're moved to do so, you can finally start down the road to being at peace.

Take comfort in knowing that you are surrounded by people who feel their pain as intensely as you do. Then check out or self-care resources to help you discover how best to increase your growth and wellbeing during this period of your life.

In your quest for pet loss self-care, it's important to tap into the resources and assistance your family and friends can provide. If you're struggling to identify who is in your network, try this free printable which walks you through how to map it out. By identifying other sympathetic souls, you'll gain access to support you really need.


Image: Remy_LozJulia Caesar

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Health Disclaimer: I’m passionate about wellbeing and health but I’m not a medical professional, nor am I a licensed therapist. Any content you read on this site is intended for inspiration and for information only – by not means am I providing medical advice. Please consult your certified professional for personalized recommendations on the mental health or physical health ideas I write about.