My clients often feel ashamed of their grief following the death of a pet because it’s “only” a dog or a cat (or bird, fish, rabbit…). Yet companion animals can provide us with love and devotion in a way that’s different from, and can even exceed, what we feel from a family member or friend.
After all, we share our lives with them. Our pets help provide structure to our days with feeding, grooming, or going for a walk. These daily rituals, even when they feel like a chore, give us a sense of purpose by making us responsible for something other than ourselves. Pets are prominent members of the family, whether that’s a large clan or it’s just you and your animal. Pets are part of the daily fabric of life, even of our secrets, sadness, and joys. They’re in our family photographs (or maybe play the starring role in our social media accounts).
Animal companions give us an emotional attachment that is pure, genuine, and steady, no matter the changes in our lives. They make us smile and laugh; unlike most relationships with a loved one, we can get mad at them, but they don’t get angry back. And pets sometimes seem to have a sixth sense about how we feel—and research shows this is more than just wishful thinking. When I’m sad, my dog knows it and looks up at me with deep brown eyes, staying with me until my mood shifts. Studies have shown that pets provide a form of support that is difficult for people—including friends and partners!—to give. Pets don’t ask for anything in return for their devotion; their love is unconditional.
A pet often greets us when we come home, curling up beside us and purring or begging to be thrown a ball. Tails wag, and we feel loved and missed. And if the pet is a hamster or bird, we go to them and take them out and show our affection, knowing that our gestures are welcome. In fact, greeting rituals are often much more pronounced with pets than a partner or child!
Research has shown that animal companions have a positive impact on our emotional, psychological, social, and physical health by reducing the frequency of illness, lowering blood pressure, and improving heart health. Loving a pet lessens loneliness and isolation, boosts self-esteem, and helps with anxiety and depression. In recent years emotional support animals (ESAs) are seen just about anywhere, helping people with psychological problems through companionship and relieving loneliness.
So when a beloved pet dies, we grieve that loss as we would for a human member of the family, and there’s no shame in it. Grief over losing a pet can actually be particularly acute, but our society doesn’t always support these feelings. So let’s get some perspective:
What is normal grief when a pet dies?
We form strong bonds with our pets; the stronger our attachment, the more profound our grief. When a pet dies, many experience depression and often a significant disruption in their day-to-day lives. The grief process is similar to that when we lose a significant person: numbness and disbelief, sadness, and depression. Many people will feel guilt, especially if they had to make the difficult decision to euthanize their pet due to illness or age. We can also feel anger at family members, or a vet who we think didn’t show enough care or concern.
Grief can take different courses for each person. Losing a pet may be a child’s first exposure to death, prompting inevitable questions that adults might find hard to answer about what happened, where the pet went, and whether it’s coming back. Families have their own ways of thinking about death but be prepared to share what you believe with your child. Our instinct is to avoid talking about death, but kids have a wonderful way of making sense of things that adults have trouble expressing. People who live alone, or who have limited social support, may have more difficulty adjusting to their loss. For older adults who live alone, the bond with a pet can be the most significant relationship they have and form a big part of their day, making them especially vulnerable to grief.
Other factors affect grief also, such as how our pet died. Was it sudden, such as a burst spleen, or violent, as in being hit by a car? Death following a long illness where a pet is on many medications and has had painful medical treatment may initially bring relief because we know our pet is out of pain, but can also leave us feeling deep sadness for the suffering we know our pet experienced.
Just as you would talk with a therapist about the loss of a friend or family member, you can use therapy to discuss your feelings about your pet’s death. Give yourself the opportunity to express your sadness and to share your memories. Consider a grief ritual such as setting a stone in a special place in your home or garden. Don’t feel like you have to minimize the importance of your animal companion. Our attachment to our pet is a real relationship that may have spanned years and provided us with security, affection, and love. Don’t shortchange your need to grieve.