Grief is the psychological process of adaptation that comes after the loss of a loved one, it´s a universal experience that almost everyone goes through in a lifetime. The loss of someone dear to us leads to the need of adaptation to a new reality in which our loved one isn´t there. Having this definition of grief in our minds, it comes as no surprise that pet owners go through this same process after the loss of their pets.
This may seem obvious to pet owners. However, it is still quite common to find those who find the intense suffering and pain that pet owners go through hard to understand. Statements such as “you can get a new one”, “it was just an animal”, or “you should get over it” are frequent when someone going through the pain of the loss dares to share their experience with others.
The psychological process of grief that we go through after the loss of a pet is similar to that of a human loss. Grief doesn´t depend on the characteristics of the being that has left us, it depends on the attachment we had with them. Having said this, there are three aspects of pet grieving that could differentiate an animal loss to a human loss: social attitudes, guilt and the absence of rituals.
1. Social Attitudes
In a study lead by Adams et al. (2000) it was detected that 50% of the people that had gone through the loss of a pet felt that society didn´t consider their loss to be worthy of grief. There is no social value given to the loss of a pet, they are considered replaceable, therefore there is no legitimation of the relationship established between pet and owner.
The non- recognition of the suffering hinders the emotional expression of those going through the process. They may feel the need to act as if nothing has happened soon after the loss, or they could stop themselves from sharing how they feel or asking for help for fear of being judged.
Recommendations for those going through Grief:
It is important to surround yourself of people you feel comfortable with and with whom you don´t feel the need to play a role. It is essential to keep doing your day to day activities, but don´t feel you have to wear a mask in order to deal with life.
Finding a group with similar values to your own can be beneficial. It´s important that you feel free to express whatever it is you feel. If you don´t find this in your day to day, remember that nowadays we have a great tool: the Internet. You may find support groups near by or find people you can share your experience with.
Talking is important, talk of all the memories you have of your pet. Share with others what your pet meant to you and what made him/ her unique. Let people know who your pet was.
Guilt usually plays an important part of pet grief. Two aspects can explain the intense guilt that can be felt: the type of bond we have with our pets and the existence and amount of pet deaths that happen via euthanasia.
On the one hand, the bond established between pet and owner is a dependent one: the animals well-being depends completely on the owner, therefore, the sense of responsibility regarding the animal’s health and well-being impacts directly on the appearance of guilt after the loss. This guilt usually appears in the form of residual feeling of “I could have done something more”.
On the other hand, the decision of euthanizing our pets is always a hard one to make and usually leads to guilt. The comprehension that we have of euthanasia will affect the role of guilt in the process. In other words, the way in which we understand euthanasia and the meaning we give to it will undeniably affect us. Said meaning could go from the perception of the owner as being an executioner to the interpretation of it as an act of liberation for the animals suffering. The harsher the meaning given to the act the more intense the guilt will be.
It is important to remember that everything seems more clear with hindsight, we´ll probably always find things that we feel we could have handled better. Remember that you´re human and you did what you could in a complicated situation with the resources that you had.
It may be helpful to understand the way in which guilt helps us feel some sense of control in a situation. If I feel guilty it means that I could have done something about it, I´m no longer a passive victim. But reality is always more complicated, things happen that are out of our control and we can only deal with them the best way we can in the moment.
In a similar way to what we said before, it´s important to talk and to allow yourself to remember. Don´t block the memories. When harsh memories come, use the positive memories as a cushion you can fall on after the harder memories have passed. If talking is hard for you, start by writing. Write what you feel, and the thoughts that come to you. Don´t judge them, just find an outlet for them and let them come out.
3. Absence of Rituals
Funerary rituals have an important role in the resolution of grief. They help to make a formal good bye and to place the loved one in a different mental place. The absence of formal rituals for pets may complicate the resolution of the grief process, leaving a seeming open end without a public and formal farewell.
Finding a private and meaningful way to celebrate your pets life will be important, it doesn´t have to be something grand. It´s about honoring your pet’s memory and feeling some sort of closure.
Pet grief is a painful experience, but if you´re going through it remember it also means you´ve had the unique experience of having enjoyed the company of a beloved pet. You are not alone; many have gone and are going through the same experience. Keep on going with your life and don´t isolate yourself. Remember that even though your pet is not with you physically, grief isn´t about saying good bye forever, it´s about placing them in a place in your heart and your mind where you can reach out to them when you need. Finally, remember to reach out for help if you feel you´re stuck in the process, contact a support group or grief counselor near you if you feel the need.