Understanding and Coping with the Loss of a Pet by Dr. Sarah Shelton
“My children have four paws. My grandchildren have fur. My dog is smarter than your honor student.” Whether boasted on a bumper sticker or proclaimed aloud, these phrases capture the importance people place on their relationships with their pets. Indeed, the relationship between human and animal is special.
The loss of a pet is devastating, and many pet owners find the grief associated with the loss of a pet just as or even more challenging than the loss of human loved ones. People who do not experience the deep love and companionship of a pet find this difficult to understand and may not be able to validate the experience of the person who is grieving. Leave from work is not typically granted when a pet passes. Funerals for pets are becoming more common but are still not commonplace. Because the loss of a pet is not experienced in the same universal way that we experience the loss of a human in our lives, pet parents often feel isolated and misunderstood during their grief. When someone’s pet passes, only those who love animals a great deal and regard them as members of the family understand the magnitude of this event. That universal sense of support that we find so helpful in times of human loss and bereavement can be starkly lacking when a pet departs. This lack of universal empathy is one of several reasons why pet bereavement poses unique challenges.
Pets love us unconditionally. Being there to love and support us is a pet’s primary job. They think our extra 15 pounds is super snuggly, our garlic-laced lunch smells delicious, and our old tattered sweatshirt is the softest thing ever. Whether our bank accounts overflow or overdraw is of no concern to them. However we are is wonderful in the eyes of our pets. Unfortunately, human relationships often do not provide this level of loving acceptance.
Pets know our secrets. Our pets have seen the most vulnerable sides of us. They have bore witness to our best moments…and our worst. They have seen our tears and know our true feelings perhaps better than anyone else, partly because of their keen perceptiveness and partly because we do not feel the need to hide it from them.
Pets are dependent upon us and are, in a sense, like perpetual “furry children.” Our pets derive their food, shelter, affection and entertainment directly from us just like children. The deep love and intimacy of that bond does not change as our pets get older. Our pets do not move off to college, get married, and start families of their own. We are their entire world. And, for some of us, they are ours. To lose this very special type of relationship rivals or surpasses bereavement of other types, and can constitute a trauma in the life of the human left behind.
While the loss of a pet holds special challenges for the pet parent, the elements of grief that we feel when we lose a human still apply. For example, bereaved pet parents are plagued with irrational guilt. The last time you ignored the shaking toy at your feet and turned away to finish work on your computer haunts you, even if you usually indulged your pet with playtime. Questions like “What if I hadn’t been two weeks late scheduling the annual veterinary exam?” taunt you, even when nothing could have changed the outcome. Bereaved pet parents are often angry that their pet was taken from them by disease or accident or just generally angry that pets are destined for a shorter life span than us humans. For animal lovers, even a “long life” for our pet is simply never long enough.
If you are struggling with the loss of a pet, consider the following points to help you in your journey.
Your grief is valid. While some people who have a different type of understanding or relationship with animals may not be able to relate or support you in your time of need, other animal-lovers who feel similarly to you understand the depth of your pain. Connecting with others who understand pet loss can help lessen the feeling of isolation and negative judgment you may experience from others in your life. The rainbow bridge (www.rainbowbridge.com) is a wonderful free resource and online community for those grieving the loss of a furry family member.
You should not compare your grief to anyone else’s experience. Focusing on whose loss is “worse,” as some are want to do, is not helpful. What matters is that this is your loss and you have to cope with it in your own way. Even if others do not respect that, respect that for yourself.
Realize that the guilt you feel is irrational in nature and is a normal part of the bereavement process. Simply knowing this will not stop these feelings from happening, but it will help you to work through them when they do.
Bereavement is a temporary state that feels like it is going to last forever. The passage of time will do a lot to help you to smile and laugh at the good memories and appreciate the positive impact that your pet had on your life.
- You have a lot of love to give that can now be rechanneled. It is a very individual and personal decision if and when to invite another pet into your life. Realize that sharing your love with another animal is not a betrayal of your beloved pet. Opening your home and heart to another animal can be a way to honor your past pet. If you are unable or not ready to do so, consider volunteering your time or resources at an animal shelter or rescue. Do something to celebrate the life of your furry friend.
Sarah Shelton, PsyD, MPH, MSCP
Licensed Clinical Psychologist – Kentucky
Board of Directors, National Register of Health Service Psychologists
President-Elect, Kentucky Psychological Association
To learn more about Dr. Shelton and her work, please visit her website at www.drsarahshelton.com.
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