The unique challenges of pet loss grief

Pet loss grief is a type of disenfranchised grief, which is something we’ve talked about in previous blogs on The Ralph Site. This means that your relationship with your pet – or, certainly, your feelings about that relationship – isn’t always recognised by others, especially in wider society.

Pet loss grief falls in the same category as the grief caused by a miscarriage or the death of an ex-spouse, as just a few examples.

It can be incredibly hard to freely acknowledge disenfranchised grief. In this week’s blog, we wanted to take a look at some of the factors that affect pet loss grief and what we can do towards creating better understanding and support.

What role did the pet have?

One of the challenges of loving then losing a pet is that the impact of this experience can differ greatly from one person to the next.

Within a single family, there will be different levels of loss depending on the type of pet, their role in the household, the pet’s age and the age of the family members, individual relationships with the pet, routines, associations and much more.

The death of a pet can upset the balance within a household, making everyone readjust their positions and roles.

But beyond the family, people may not recognise the role of the pet. If a child, parent, partner or sibling dies, for example, even looking in from the outside, we can begin to empathise about what this might mean to the wider family. But when a pet dies, many people struggle to understand where the animal fitted in the family dynamic.

Society lacks agreement about the value of animal life

How pet loss is perceived by others will vary enormously.

Some people will never choose to have a pet in their home, therefore they may view pet loss as something we voluntarily invite into our lives. Indeed, many people believe that pet loss is an inevitable part of the whole pet ‘ownership’ experience so they can’t understand why it comes as such a blow.

Other people view animals as a commodity, a belonging over which they have ownership and that can be freely bought and sold, kept or disposed of without emotional consequences.

There are some that place more value on animals that fulfil a ‘job’ within society, such as service dogs, racehorses or farmed animals, for example. Anecdotal evidence suggests that carers of therapy dogs that are well-known in the local community often receive greater support when their dog dies than pet carers in other circumstances.

Others provide diligent care to animals but in the context of livestock that’s ultimately destined for someone’s dinner plate and they will see this in terms of a ‘natural order’.

Some care deeply for their pets but maintain a level of emotional detachment that makes their passing easier to manage.

At the same time, a growing number of us see our pets as a central, much-loved family member (more about this below), which means we may feel a depth of grief that just isn’t expected by people in the other cross-sections of society mentioned above. In many ways, The Ralph Site was created to give this final group a greater voice.

Society minimises the pain of pet loss

Sadly, we live in a society where pet loss is frequently minimised and trivialised. It may even be the butt of jokes.

Think about how often TV shows and films turn the death of a pet into a comedy of errors or joke about the bereaved person needing time off to mourn.

Research has found that the lack of societal support is a significant factor in preventing pet carers from progressing through their grief.

Some of the key observations from the research are that there is “no collective societal recognition and support of expressions of grief for animals”, as well as a “lack of societal agreement about the value of animal life”.

Worse yet, some people still believe that pet carers who openly grieve for their pets probably formed an intense emotional attachment because they are in some way “marginalised” from society or “deficient in human contact”. This reinforces an unhelpful stigma that pet loss grief is abnormal when, of course, it is anything but.

The level of attachment

Research has found that many pet carers will make the same sacrifices for their pets that they would make for a human family member.

 One study found that 80% of us would not give up a pet, even if they caused severe allergies and health problems for the carer.

Changes in society, such as a larger than ever number of child-free couples, longer lifespans, changing roles in families – including people moving away from their wider family group – and a greater understanding of animal psychology all mean that pets often serve as family members.

As we know from our lived experiences, pets provide unconditional love and companionship, a non-judgemental presence at the end of the day. Most us of feel that, in terms of a nurturing and loving connection, our pets give as much as they receive.

One researcher, Liz Margolies, has even suggested that pets can display the qualities we often look for in a mother – devotion, forgiveness, affection, an uncritical attitude, and availability – or fulfil the role of a child: “may be held, remain dependent, allow the carer to offer maternal love with less anxiety than with children, and often permit them to feel competent in their role as parent”.

Inevitably though, these deeper levels of attachment mean that pet carers experience a deeper level of grief. Society just hasn’t caught up in terms of its milestones, rituals and support. Thankfully, a number of excellent pet loss support services exist now. Hopefully, we will see more counsellors and therapists recognising the roles companion animals play in our lives so that people can access help from a wide range of sources.

The role of caretaker

Researchers Quackenbush and Graveline have observed in their extensive research into pet bereavement that the first emotion most people experience when a pet dies in guilt. This is compared to ‘denial’ in human-to-human bereavement.

This is because we take the role of caretakers for our pets and often feel that we have let them down in “either an emotional, physical or financial way”.

It’s a natural response to explore what you didn’t do for your pet or what you could have done differently. You might wish you tried a different treatment method or got a second opinion from another vet, for example. Because our pets can’t talk to us or offer their own opinions about their health or status, we have to make decisions about their life and death without their input. This can have huge emotional consequences.

How euthanasia affects pet loss grief

Another factor in pet loss grief is the availability of euthanasia. People often describe euthanasia as the ‘final gift’ we can give our dying pets but, again, research shows that the responsibility weighs heavily.

The evidence suggests that around 50% of us feel guilty for having our pets euthanised. You’re far more likely to experience guilt if you’re worried you let your pet go too soon or you’re uncomfortable with the way the vet presented the need for euthanasia. People sometimes feel pushed into a decision, especially in an emergency situation where there wasn’t time to think.

Also, if you feel your actions in some way contributed towards your animal friend having to be ‘put to sleep’, it can be hard to find solace. There’s no doubt that euthanasia informs our pet loss grief, especially in the early days, weeks and months.

Links to other relationships and experiences

Pets frequently provide a link to other relationships and experiences.

For example, you may become part of a friendly walking group with your dog and find friendship through that group but, when your dog dies, you may suddenly feel like you don’t belong.

Equally, if you’ve had a pet throughout your childhood who dies just as you hit adulthood, it can feel like the literal death of your childhood.

Someone who has lost their romantic partner may struggle with a double layer of grief when the pet they both shared passes away, especially if the pet gave them purpose and routine when their partner died (Ricky Gervais’ series After Life depicts this dynamic beautifully).

Even the loss of routine when a pet dies can have huge ramifications for the bereaved pet carer.

Conclusion

What is clear above all else is that grief of an animal’s death is a normal reaction.

There are many factors that we need to recognise to better support bereaved pet carers and to legitimise their feelings within our wider societies.

As researchers Archer and Winchester observed:

“The personal meaning of what has been lost is a good predictor of the intensity of subsequent grief.”

We need to give people space to explore and talk about the meaning of what has been lost. It doesn’t matter if the pet was a dog, cat, horse, bird, guinea pig, lizard or fish (or one of the other wonderful animals with which we share our lives). What matters is how the bereaved pet carer feels and the knowledge that they are not alone.

Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

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