By Susan J. O'Grady, PhD
For many of us, our relationships with our pets are like no other. There’s an emotional attachment that is pure, genuine, and steady, no matter the changes in our lives. Pets give us their devotion without asking for anything in return. Their love is unconditional.
So when a beloved pet dies, the sense of loss can be overwhelming. We may even feel the same degree of grief as we would for a human member of the family, though we may not feel comfortable admitting it. Many of my clients feel ashamed of their grief following the death of a pet because it’s “only” a dog or a cat (or bird, fish, rabbit…), but there’s no shame in deeply grieving the loss of a pet.
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. 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. For parents whose children have not been exposed to death before, losing a pet may prompt inevitable questions about what happened, where the pet went, and whether the pet is coming back. Each family has their own way of thinking about death; 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.
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 placing 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.