When people talk about pet bereavement, the focus often feels like it’s on the loss of a dog or cat but for those of us with small pets, we know that their loss can leave a huge hole in our lives too.
Whether you’re grieving the death of a tiny Russian hamster or a house-trained rabbit, or it’s your pet budgie or snake that has passed, your companion’s size, lifespan or even their furriness is not a measure of your grief.
As we explored in a recent article, the loss of a pet can bring massive disruptions to your daily routines, adding to your sense of loss, but there are other reasons small pets matter too and it helps the grieving process to acknowledge them.
One of the greatest joys of caring for an animal is that they provide a non-judgemental presence in our lives. Human relationships are fraught with risk – what if the people we love reject us? Or disagree with us? Or their feelings towards us change? Or we disappoint them in some way?
These worries can shape how we behave and how much of ourselves we reveal.
With animals, there are none of these concerns. Animals, whatever their species, live in the moment and, as such, they don’t share our anxiety for the future. We are what they know and understand and they don’t search for anything other than what we’re able to give them in the here and now. They accept us for who we are, even our flaws, which is extraordinarily freeing – the very definition of ‘unconditional love’.
Loss of companionship
As a pet carer, it’s likely that your small pet gave you companionship. It may even be that because of problems such as anxiety, depression, physical illness or even your age, your pet was your only regular companion. Even the smallest of pets can be great therapy animals for adults and children alike, providing a calm and constant source of companionship when living in the world feels lonely or overwhelming.
You may not have needed to hold your pet to benefit from their company – just hearing a hamster in his/her cage or enjoying the wheeks and chatter of guinea pigs can make a house feel like a home.
Even if you’re surrounded by people or in great health, the companionship of a pet can be just as important. Your small pet may have been an oasis of peace after a busy day at work or an accepting friend who didn’t expect you to always be the entertainer of your social group.
The passing of your ‘life witness’
Many people describe their lost pet as someone who was a witness to their life.
Your small pet may have seen you grow from a teenager to a young adult or been there to witness you becoming a parent for the first time. They might have lived in different houses with you or been in your life when you changed jobs. Perhaps you associate them with a significant relationship or event.
Of course, it’s not just the big milestones that our pets are there to witness. Perhaps it’s even more emotional that they are simply part of our everyday lives, part of the fabric of our days and years within the comfort of our own homes.
A member of the family
Many adults share their lives with small pets and are grief-stricken when their comparatively short lives come to an end, but your small pet may also have been important to your children. In fact, for many young people, it’s the death of a family pet that is often their first introduction to death and bereavement.
If you have a child who’s struggling with this loss, you might find our article about helping a child through the grieving process helpful, especially in terms of some age-appropriate tips.
Your grief is allowed
People often talk about pet bereavement as a disenfranchised grief because our society doesn’t always recognise the impact that the death of a pet can have.
Those of us mourning the loss of a small pet can feel particularly lonely in the face of other people’s apparent lack of sympathy. You may feel that, in other’s eyes, because your pet only had the prospect of a short lifespan, you should have expected their death and been prepared for it. Well-meaning friends may say, “It was just a degu – why not get another?” or “It costs more to take them to the vet than it does to replace them” (yes, this has been said to members of The Ralph Site) as if the animal you loved was just a commodity to swap and change with another.
If you are mourning a pet commonly associated with phobias – rats, mice, snakes and tarantulas all spring to mind – it may feel like other people are struggling to understand your attachment.
Whatever the circumstances, your grief is allowed. You don’t have to justify it to anyone and you don’t have to get over it overnight. The same advice applies to bereaved small animal carers as it does to those with cats and dogs – give yourself time, be kind to yourself, commemorate your lost companion, talk about them, celebrate them and remember that, while their life may have been short, it still mattered.
There are some lovely small pet carers in The Ralph Site’s Pet Loss Support Group on Facebook so please do remember that support and an understanding ear is out there if you need it.
Until next time, very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support