As we’ve talked about in previous blogs, pet bereavement is seen by many as a disenfranchised grief. People are often afraid of telling their friends and family how much the death of a pet has affected them for fear of not being understood. Non-pet lovers may say, “It was just an animal” or “It’s not the same as a human death”.
Indeed, many people feel that there is still a cultural stigma around grieving for a pet and that they’re expected to “Just get over it”. They may question their own feelings, “Is it normal to be this upset?” or “I know it’s crazy to still be grieving”.
It doesn’t help that, as a society, we’re not very comfortable with the concept of death. In the quest to look younger and live longer, many of us prefer death to be hidden away as much as possible. Pets confront this with their short lives, which can make people uncomfortable.
Loving a pet is also complicated by the fact that we give our animals status within our families, sometimes on a par with children, parents and friends, and yet we can still buy and sell pets like commodities. To the wider society, this commercial aspect of having a pet can make it hard to appreciate the level of grief.
But, if you have loved and lost a pet, you will know that the grief is all too real.
Looking into this topic online, there are several references to a Co-op study (unable to find the source to link to) that found that more than 25% of people felt as devastated at the loss of a pet as at the loss of a close human family member. A further 33% said the grief was the same as losing a good friend. Sixteen percent of people said they were still struggling with their grief more than a year after their bereavement.
As 40% of us have pets in our homes, this is a significant number of people who will face the loss of a much loved animal and the grief that comes with it in the not too distant future.
Fortunately, times are changing. There is a growing recognition of the grief we experience when a pet dies, and this is one area in which the current cult of celebrity may be making a positive difference.
With the growth of social media, many people who live in the public eye are connecting with their audiences via social media pages rather than relying on interviews in newspapers and magazines. This provides a sense of immediacy and often gives us glimpses into the lives of the rich and famous.
As a result, more and more celebrities post details about the animals in their lives and the special bonds they share with them, as well as expressing their profound grief when a pet companion dies.
Back in 2010, former MP Roy Hattersley wrote a heartfelt article about the death of his beloved dog, Buster, saying, “I sat in the first floor room in which I work, watching my neighbours go about their lives, amazed and furious that they were behaving as if it was a normal day. Stop all the clocks. Buster was dead”.
In another piece Lord Hattersley said, “Buster’s death was the most painful thing I had ever experienced, more painful than losing my mother. We were so close. I didn’t put out my mother’s breakfast in the morning or walk her in the evening. She didn’t sleep in a basket in my bedroom. In objective terms, I am sensible enough to put human life above dog life. But one’s affections aren’t objective.”
True Lies, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dollhouse star, Eliza Dushku, posted about her heartbreak when her wonderful dog, Max Factor, died in August 2014.
Several months later, she shared a post of a retriever pup saying, “I want 1 of u in my life again soon, lil dude. Not ready yet, but maybe soon. Miss my #MaxFactorD desperately. But he’d mos def want me to be a mum again. #dawgs 💛“. It’s a struggle with which many of us can identify.
In January 2015, she brought a new pup, Tanner, into her life with the hope that Max Factor would be ‘shining down’ on them.
American journalist and author, Bob Sullivan, has written a number of poignant articles about the death of his dog, Lucky, and his subsequent decision to adopt rescue pup, Rusty. One that really stands out is when he talks about feeling invisible after Lucky died – we’ve talked about loss of routine here on The Ralph Site blog too.
Bob Sullivan even created a memorial Facebook page called So Lucky to reach out to people on social media during and after his time of profound grief. From the comments on the page, it’s clear that many people welcomed a platform to provide and receive support following their own pet bereavement.
In 2017, Tom Hardy’s emotional tribute to his rescue dog, Woody, made headlines throughout the world and invited hundreds of thousands of comments of support from pet carers who understood the depth of his loss. You can read it in full here.
It struck such a chord with people that, if you do a search on Google for ‘Tom Hardy Woody tribute’, you get almost a million search results to choose from! It was as though, if a man known for ‘tough guy’ roles such as the Kray twins, could express his grief in such an open and raw way then other people could talk about it too.
Other celebrities have shared their pet bereavement with audiences too.
A tearful Holly Willoughby spoke on This Morning about how her cat, Roxy, had passed away in her sleep unexpectedly and how telling her children was one of the hardest things she had ever had to do.
It is very hard to read Sue Perkins’ open letter to her beloved Beagle, Pickles, without shedding a tear. It truly does encapsulate what makes a pet so special – the unique, exclusive relationships we have with them.
Goodbye my darling Pickle – my joy, my pain.
I loved you so fiercely from the moment we met.
Peace now xx pic.twitter.com/k9neMFpJtq
— Sue Perkins (@sueperkins) January 15, 2014
There are some who say that celebrities shouldn’t share every detail of their lives online, that some things should be private, but I think celebrity pet bereavement – as unbearably sad as it is – can help us to break down the taboos and stigmas associated with grieving for an animal.
It can show that everyone hurts and no one is immune to loss.
When people with public influence are unafraid to talk about pet loss, it brings everyone into the conversation. It may even make people who aren’t animal lovers more aware that pet bereavement is as real as any other form of grief.
It is wonderful to see something positive come out of something terrible, and for pet carers to know that they’re not alone.
Until next time, Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support