Emotions are very real as pet owners come to terms with a difficult loss
By Chris Haws
At the pet loss support groups I conduct at the VCA Southpaws Veterinary Center in Fairfax, Va., I often hear from attendees that they encounter sentiments like this as they grieve a beloved animal companion: “He was only a dog, it’s not as if a real person died.” “You knew the day would come, cats don’t live forever.” “You can always get another pet — move on.”
Generally, such insensitive and unhelpful statements are made by people who have not known the unique, enriching and profound nature of the relationship we have with our pets.
“They just don’t get it,” said Jennifer, the grieving owner of a Miniature Schnauzer.
“And that’s their misfortune,” added Alice, her neighbor at the table and a former cat owner.
The Burden of Disenfranchised Grief
They were both right, and in more ways than you might at first imagine.
Numerous studies have shown that people enjoy a wide range of positive emotional benefits from their pets; the Comfort from Companion Animals Scale (CCAS) lists over a dozen, including companionship, pleasure, play, laughter, constancy, something to love, comfort, feeling loved, responsibility, feeling needed, trust, safety and exercise. Pet owners also tend to live longer than non-pet owners and report fewer visits to physicians, psychiatrists and therapists.
So why the disconnect when a person is grieving over the loss of a pet? Part of the answer lies in the fact that society at large doesn’t always cope very well with certain types of grief. People aren’t sure what to say or how to behave. Death is never a comfortable topic, but when that death involves “socially delicate” circumstances such as suicide, drug overdose or any other loss that cannot be easily acknowledged, or publicly mourned, it can provoke what is described as “disenfranchised grief”.
And that’s what can occur when someone loses a pet.
Lizzy, the owner of Petra (a recently euthanized 13-year-old Boxer/Bloodhound mix), is a busy wife and mother who works full-time. Of her family, and her grief, she remarked: “They don’t want me to cry in front of them, and no one will talk about my pain.”
It’s a sentiment that is frequently expressed: “I can’t stop crying. My husband gets angry with me. I know he’s sad too, but he just won’t show it,” noted Alice, grieving the loss of the couple’s treasured cat.
And, of course, the additional, unwelcome experience of disenfranchisement only makes an already sad situation worse, as Jennifer observed: “Everybody has moved on like it was just yesterday’s news. I’m not expecting everybody to feel as I do, but to be so utterly deserted has been tough. I was literally told that I would just have to get over it. Just take twelve and a half years and move on … sure, I’ll get right on that.”
A Painful Loss After a Pet Is Gone
The point is that pet loss generates a degree of grief that can be every bit as acute as human loss. Some go even further. “These have been the worst days of my life. For me, this is worse than losing people,” wrote Karen, a grieving Pomeranian owner.
She is not alone. Many of the attendees at my pet loss support group sessions have expressed the same view. Grief from pet loss hurts. A lot.
Grief from pet loss is also an equal opportunity emotion. Our session attendees have included high ranking military officers, diplomats, corporate executives and professional artists. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. There are a lot of us pet owners around.
Sixty-seven percent of all U.S. households, or about 85 million families, own a pet. Some 73 % of those families own one or more dogs (89.7 million) and 49% own one or more cats (94.2 million).
And the sad — and significant — fact is that no pet lives forever. The mean age of death for dogs of all breeds is just over 11 years; curiously, the larger breeds die much younger than the small breeds, and scientists aren’t quite sure why. For house cats, the mean age at death is just over 15 years.
Pet ownership is almost certain to lead to loss, at some point in time. Most of us understand that reality, although we don’t like to dwell too much on it.
The relatively short lifespan of a pet also brings its own unique challenge. The relationship that we have with our animal companions is beyond special — a two-way dependency that is based on an unspoken agreement that we will care for each other with no questions asked. But at the end of a pet’s life, that understanding can be tested in a way that has yet to present itself in the realm of human mortality: euthanasia.
A large animal hospital such as VCA South Paws “puts down” over 20 animals a week, but only after extensive veterinary medical review and never without the full agreement and participation of the owner. Nevertheless, many of the attendees at the pet loss support sessions are still wracked with guilt about the decision they made to end their companion’s life. Might he have recovered? What else could have been done for her? Had they been too hasty?
If it’s any consolation, in every case I’ve encountered, not only had the time truly come to end the animal’s pain or suffering, but in many cases the creature seemed ready and willing to stop battling on as well.
“He was ready to go,” observed Sue, the owner of a Chocolate Labrador. “She was suffering and I needed to help my best friend,” remembers Lizzy, the Boxer/Bloodhound owner.“There was nothing more anyone could do” agreed John, the heartbroken owner of a fourteen-year-old Yorkie.
Grieving in a Safe Space
That unfamiliar blend of resignation, relief and heartache is a difficult one to process and it takes a while for people to reconcile all those internal conflicts. That’s where grief support groups can play an important role. It really helps someone who is bursting with questions and doubts, on top of their inevitable grief, to hear others express similar feelings and emotions.
As one newcomer to the group remarked: “I was astonished to hear her talk about the same feelings I have and the same behaviors I’m doing. Someone I’ve never met, not in my age group, probably with a completely different life than mine, doing the same things and feeling the exact same way as myself.”
Another fellow griever agreed: “I was surprised that my reaction is normal. It’s nice to speak to others that recognize those dark moments.”
As you might imagine, there is a lot of sympathetic nodding and wry smiles of recognition at these meetings. We also go through a lot of tissues. And that’s perfectly OK, too.
Like any grief counseling session, the participants are encouraged to talk openly about their feelings and express whatever emotion overwhelms them. Pet loss support groups are resolutely safe places … places where nobody is allowed to feel disenfranchised.
And there’s also a lot of laughter, as we hear about how Stan the cat defended his place on the family couch or how Petra the dog had a habit of herding the young children towards the meal table at supper time. These are precious memories, shared with people who understand.
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