Pet loss grief is often subject to some common myths and misconceptions. These myths don’t help anyone, least of all the bereaved person.
In this week’s blog, we wanted to take a look at some of the biggest pet loss grief myths and why you need to give yourself permission to ignore them.
Myth one: Pet loss is less painful and less significant than losing a human loved one
There is no scale or measure for grief, so please ignore anyone who suggests that there is.
For many of us, losing a beloved pet is just as painful and significant as losing a human that we love. Our pets are companions who provide us with very important relationships; they share our homes and lives with us and, for this reason and many others, it’s understandable that you may feel bereft without your animal friend.
It’s not a competition. If you feel grief – and why wouldn’t you? – then you don’t have to justify those feelings.
Myth two: Pet loss grief devalues human life and human relationships
There are some people in this world who do not understand how we can grieve for animals. This may be because they’ve never had a pet or spent time with animal companions. It could be because they view animals as commodities, rather than living, feeling beings. It can sometimes stem from religious or cultural beliefs or even from beliefs within a family.
But these beliefs don’t have to be yours.
It is entirely possible to care for both animals and humans. The grief for one doesn’t detract from the value of the other.
Myth three: People who grieve intensely for a pet must have a problem connecting with other people
Sadly, some people believe that the only reason we might grieve intensely for a pet is because we struggle with human relationships.
But what do these people know?!
Your pet was part of the fabric of your life. They showed you unconditional love and your days were built with their needs and routine at the heart. Of course you are going to grieve.
The fact that you are able to love your pet deeply and form strong emotional attachments says a lot about your capacity for connection.
The truth is that both love and grief are indifferent to the species of the one that has died and the one that is left behind.
Besides, even if you do prefer the company of animals (and we know quite a lot of us do!), that’s your choice.
Myth four: The death of a pet is like a ‘dress rehearsal’ for grief
This myth comes up a lot, especially when we talk about how children deal with pet loss grief. People often say that it’s good for children to experience the death of a pet, as if it will prepare them for the ‘real thing’ later in life.
While it’s certainly true that many of us do encounter grief for the first time when a pet dies in childhood, it’s a myth to say that the loss is just a dress rehearsal. Many children experience profound grief for a pet that they carry with them throughout their lives.
Equally, many adults – as we’ve seen above – experience as much, if not more grief, for a pet as for a human loved one. It is wrong to try to diminish someone’s bereavement by viewing it as a practice run.
Loss is loss, in whatever form it comes.
Myth five: It’s eccentric or frivolous to spend money on a funeral or memorial for a pet
People who haven’t lost a precious pet might scoff at the idea of paying for a cremation or building a memorial garden for our animal companions.
However, one of the issues with a disenfranchised grief like pet loss is that it isn’t supported by the usual milestones and rituals created by society. There is a reason that, after a human death, we have a period of mourning, a funeral and reception/wake afterwards, bereavement cards or even bereavement leave from work. These rituals provide structure, comfort and purpose for the bereaved.
They also encourage the bereaved person’s wider network to offer support.
A growing number of people now understand that these milestones and rituals can offer great solace to a bereaved pet carer.
Myth six: There are five stages of grief
There is an enduring myth about grief for both humans and animals that the bereaved will go through five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
In fact, these stages were defined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in relation to the emotions people experience when they are dying of a terminal illness. They were later adopted as a description of grief.
In reality, grief is far less linear or organised than five neat stages. Yes, people often experience these five emotions as a result of pet loss but they are not definitive. Some research has found the most common emotion immediately after a pet dies or goes missing is guilt.
Myth seven: It’s best to get a new pet as quickly as possible
People who have lost a pet will often hear things like, “At least you can get a new one” or “Why don’t you go out and get another one? That will take your mind off how you’re feeling”.
This advice can be quite hurtful as it suggests a pet is replaceable or interchangeable. This minimises the personality and uniqueness of the pet the grieving person has lost.
There’s no doubt that this advice is well meant. Some of us do have multiple pets that offer some solace. As animal lovers, we often decide to open our homes to a new pet as soon as possible, but this is a very personal decision.
We would never dream to give this advice to someone who has lost a human loved one.
The most important thing is that you take your time and do what is right for you and your family.
Myth eight: Grief will end
Another enduring myth about grief is that it’s a linear journey that ends eventually. People often talk about finding ‘closure’ or that they should be ‘over’ their grief by a certain point in time.
In reality, grief perhaps never fully ends. There’s a powerful analogy that describes grief as learning to walk with a stone in your shoe. At first, it hurts all the time but eventually you learn how to walk differently. The stone is still there but it doesn’t trouble you as much because you’ve learned how to live with it.
Most bereaved pet carers would probably agree with this. The nature of grief does change with time. For many of us, it softens and makes room for other emotions and experiences, but it can still resurface over the years.
Myth nine: You should only hold on to pleasant memories of your pet
After a pet dies, it’s usual to think non-stop about the circumstances around their death. At this time, it can be hard to imagine ever remembering the good times again.
Again, well-meaning people may tell you to think about the good times and forget about the bad times.
For most of us, our memories find some balance with time. You may always carry some of the emotional scars of losing your pet. You may often think about their final moments or carry regrets inside of you. But, eventually, happy memories will come back to you too.
It’s this contrast between the light and dark times that tells the story of a whole life lived rather than just the highlights reel. It makes the good times more precious when they’re seen alongside the bad.
Are there are pet loss myths that bother you? Have your friends or family tried to comfort you or ‘snap you out’ of your grief with a so-called ‘wisdom’ that doesn’t fit with your feelings?
The Ralph Site is here for you. Join our private Facebook pet loss support group to talk to other pet carers who ‘get it’, who understand the depth of your loss.
You’re not alone.
Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support