Excellent article from Chris Haws on the disenfranchised grief pet owners experience. Pets are family and loss itself is not dependent upon one has two legs or four. Pet loss is something that can be as traumatic as family loss. Pets for some are as close as family. Chris Haws below discusses how this loss needs to be acknowledged.
“He was only a dog …”
“He was only a dog – it’s not as if a real person died”; “You knew this day would come – cats don’t live forever”; “You can always get another pet – move on”.
Unfortunately, too many of the attendees at the pet loss support groups that I conduct report that they have encountered sentiments like these while grieving over the loss of a beloved animal companion. 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 one grieving Miniature Schnauzer owner.
“… And that’s their misfortune”, added her neighbor at the table – a cat owner.
They were both right – and in more ways than you might at first imagine. Numerous studies have shown that not only do people enjoy a wide range of positive emotional benefits from their pets, (the Comfort from Companion Animals Scale – the CCAS – lists over a dozen, including companionship , pleasure , play, laughter , constancy , something to love, comfort , feeling loved , responsibility , feeling needed , trust , safety , and exercise), but 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 their 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, abortion, AIDS, 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 – (“only an animal”, and “not a real person”, remember?)
The owner of a recently euthanized 13 year old Boxer/Bloodhound mix is a busy wife and mother, who also holds down a full-time job. 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 an elderly lady, grieving the loss of the couple’s treasured cat.
And, of course, that additional, unwelcome, experience of “disenfranchisement” only makes an already sad situation worse, as the grieving Miniature Schnauzer owner ruefully 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. Right….Just take twelve and a half years and move on….Sure, I’ll get right on that.”
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 one grieving Pomeranian owner. She is not alone. Many of the attendees at the pet loss support group sessions have expressed the same view. Grief from pet loss hurts. A lot.
And, of course, 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, as well as normal mortals like you and me. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. There are a lot of us pet owners around. Sixty-eight percent of all U.S. households, or about 85 million families, own a pet. 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 eleven years, (curiously, the larger breeds die much younger than the small breeds – scientists aren’t quite sure why that should be), and for house cats the mean age at death is just over fifteen years. So 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. And the benefits (remember that Comfort from Companion Animals Scale, the CCAS?) of pet ownership are so compelling.
So 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 look after 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 (although it may one day). I’m talking, of course, about 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 the owners of their cancer ridden, Irish Setter. “She was suffering and I needed to help my best friend”, remembers the Boxer/Bloodhound owner. “There was nothing more anyone could do” agreed the heartbroken owner of his fourteen year old Yorkie.
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. And that’s where the 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’s a lot of sympathetic nodding and wry smiles of recognition at these meetings. We also get through a lot of Kleenex 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 Pippa 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.
People who “get it”.
Chris Haws is a British born Psychologist and Counselor based in Northwest DC who specializes in grief, loss, recovery, and personal development. For over three decades, his writing has appeared in print, radio and TV around the world.
Please also review AIHCP’s Pet Loss Grief Counseling Program