Saying farewell to a pet is a difficult thing. It is a painful moment when you finally say goodbye to a loved one. In saying farewell, it should be done like anyone else we love. Rituals and traditions can help ease the pain.
The article, “How to farewell your pet if you can’t be there when they die” by Rachel Edwards discusses how one can ease the pain of losing a pet through ritual and tradition. She states,
“Linda Michie is a registered counsellor for people experiencing the gamut of life — including the death of pets. She says many people feel guilty if they are not able to be with their pets at the end, thinking they should be there right to the last moment. “I remind them that they gave their pets such a great life and that without great love there is no great loss,” she says. Linda works with people to find a solution to not being able to be present for a pet’s death. These are her suggestions.”
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.
The loss of a pet is a big loss. For years and years, people downgraded this loss and acted as if it was just a pet. People were told they are over reacting over a loss of a pet. Now, society is seeing such losses as big losses to individuals. Pets are like family and the bonds of love are just as strong. With such discussions, some ask if pet bereavement time is needed from employment. Should employers give an employee time away from work to properly grieve?
The article, “Can You Take An Extended Period Off Work After Your Pet Dies?” by Rebecca Reid looks closer at this. She states,
“Mixed in with the sympathetic responses to Lorde’s loss were the voices of those who found her raw misery unpalatable, because it was felt for a pet, not a person. But grief is a strange, complicated thing. It’s entirely possible to feel nothing when someone who you ‘should’ feel sad about dies, and a huge amount at the loss of someone strange”
When our dogs are sad, we are sad. Dogs are family and when a dog is not feeling well or is grieving the loss of another person or pet, then we naturally want to comfort our dog. Dogs display emotion and sadness in different ways and we need to identify that grief and also be able to spark joy into their lives again.
The article, “How to help a dog who is grieving the loss of a loved one” by Lisa Walden states,
“Dogs experiencing a loss can show signs of confusion, fear or depression. If it’s the loss of their owner, you may notice dogs trying to figure out where that person has gone. If it’s another pet who has passed away, your dog may spend more time in their bed or favorite places, often with the hope that their friend may return.”
Losing a pet is not a minor thing in life. A cat, dog, or horse is a long term companion. To some, the pet is even family. Learning to live without the pet is something harder to do than other people may imagine.
The article, “4 Things I Learned About Grief After My Dog Died” by Deanna Adams discusses the pains of losing a dog. She states,
“Sometimes the death of a beloved pet comes suddenly and sometimes it’s expected. It can be tragic, traumatic and devastating. The loss is keenly felt and lives often change abruptly. Many of us consider our pets to be family, not “just a dog,” or “just a cat.” The death of a pet can hurt as much as the loss of a relative for some people”
In a breakup, many secondary losses occur. One secondary loss that is not considered is the loss of a pet in a divorce or breakup. Not seeing a pet is one loss that can occur. This can lead to a loss that sometimes is overlooked by society.
In breakups and divorce this type of loss is all too common and the state, like with children, does not grant shared custody of a pet, even if we wish to consider our pet equal to a human. Ultimately, many bitter breakups use children and also pets as ways to punish the other when in reality you are only punishing the child or the pet.
The article,”LOSING A PET IN A BREAKUP IS THE HARDEST PART OF SPLITTING NO ONE TALKS ABOUT—HERE ARE TIPS TO DEAL” by Rachel Lapida states,
“I remember the day we got her: Penny was a tiny chocolate ball of a puppy who already knew how to fetch and she could sleep in the bed with her human parents. I lived with my boyfriend and we raised her together before adding another puppy, Zelda, to our household a year later. I loved all three of my roommates so much—until my boyfriend and I broke up and he took the dogs. And that’s why I have to write about them in past tense. They’re still alive, but not in my life.”
Please also review our Pet Loss Grief Counseling program to learn more. The program is online and independent study that is open to qualified professionals looking for certification in Pet Loss Grief Counseling.
Good article on dealing with the loss of a pet, in particular a cat, and how to determine when it is the right time to find a new cat. Obviously not a cat to replace the lost cat, but one to share your love with for the next years.
The article, “How Long After Your Cat Dies Should You Wait Before Getting a New Cat?” by Kellie B. Gormly states,
“Losing a cat is devastating for a household’s humans and other pets. While no cat can replace another beloved cat — each pet, like each person, is unique — hopefully, you will open your heart and home to a new cat at some point. But how long after your cat dies should you get a new cat, and what can you do to make a successful match?”
Good article how vets can help relieve the pain and sting of losing a beloved pet. Pet loss grief counseling can help others overcome grief as well but its important to start with the vet and the initial loss.
The article, “Veterinarians can help ease the pain of losing a pet, says researcher”, by Kate Bueckert states,
“Anyone who has had to put down a pet knows it can be a gut-wrenching experience.
Many veterinarian officers offer a support system to their clients – they work to give the grieving pet owner as much help as needed.”
Losing a pet is painful. The process of caring for a dying pet can take an emotional toll as one awaits the inevitable. It is truly sad to see an older pet not be himself and then have to come to the ultimate decision of letting go.
The article, “For Veterinarians, Caring For Sick Pets And Grieving Owners Takes A Toll”, by Kasia Galazka states
“When I walked dogs at a Chicago animal shelter, I wondered how each one got there. Whether a stitched-up pup shirked from my touch or happily greeted me tongue-first, my eyes would well up with salt. I wanted to keep them all.”