A recent review of 17 studies into pet loss grief summarised by Psychology Today highlighted what most bereaved pet carers already know and that is that grief for an animal companion can be as strong as that felt when a human loved one dies.
The research also identified five themes of pet loss grief that influence how we feel: The relationship, the grief, the guilt, the support network and the future.
But what is meant by these?
- Your relationship or bond with your pet
The research reviewed shows that pet loss grief is shaped by the relationship and bond you shared with your pet.
Our animal companions see us in our most relaxed, unguarded and vulnerable moments, sharing our homes and everyday routines. In many ways, they know more about us than anyone, maybe even the other humans we live with.
Animals offer us unconditional love, even when we’re going through a rough patch in life. They give us companionship, support and even independence, in some cases.
In turn, many of us enjoy our role as a caregiver to our pets, finding happiness in nurturing another living being.
Is it any wonder that we grieve for that loving and accepting presence in our lives when they’ve gone?
As with any relationship in life, it’s clear that deep bonds can lead to a period of deep grief.
- How you feel and express your pet loss grief
Grieving pet carers consistently report experiencing psychological and physical symptoms of grief, such as feelings of emptiness, loss of appetite, sleep disruption and more.
However, other factors may affect pet loss grief too. This includes your other caring responsibilities (e.g. other non-human animals, young children, ageing parents), previous experiences with pet loss and bereavement or, for some people, the type of animal that has died.
In the absence of the mourning rituals we routinely observe when a human dies, bereaved pet carers often feel that their grief isn’t recognised or taken seriously and that they have no choice but to grieve alone. They may have to create their own ways to mourn – for example, planting a memorial garden, writing a letter to their pet or displaying their belongings as a way to remember them.
The research also shows that grieving pet carers adopt a wide range of coping mechanisms, from keeping busy and not talking about their loss to dwelling on it for long periods of time. There may also be a lot of anxiety about whether or not to welcome a new pet into their home and if this is trying to “replace” the pet who has died.
- Feelings of guilt
Something that comes up time and again is how guilty we feel when a pet dies, regardless of the circumstances.
There are several clear reasons for this.
Animals are unable to verbally express their wishes to us so, as pet carers, we have to act in what we believe to be their best interests. But how can we be sure? What would an animal want if they could tell us? This is something many of us grapple with.
Our animal companions are dependent on us for everything – from the food they eat to where they sleep, how they spend their time and so much more. In many ways, this means they are as vulnerable as a human infant. Knowing this can make us fiercely protective of our animal friends and is a huge responsibility.
It’s within this context that euthanasia represents both a gift and a curse. We talk about euthanasia as the last kindness that we can show to an animal who is dying. The word itself comes from the Greek meaning “good death” and most would agree that it’s a valid choice to end an animal’s suffering.
But it’s a decision that weighs heavy on us as pet carers. Knowing that euthanasia is an option gives us the power of choosing life or death for our non-human family members, even if it’s just bringing death forward when it has become inevitable, and that can be difficult to reconcile when your entire relationship has been about helping your pet to thrive.
What if we chose euthanasia too late? What if it was too soon? What if it was the wrong choice? Was there another option?
It’s common for pet carers to wrestle with these thoughts for some time after their pet has died, even when we know that we made the choice in order to end our friend’s suffering. Guilt is usually tied to these thoughts.
It’s also not unusual for bereaved pet carers to worry that they betrayed their pet in some way by choosing euthanasia. It can take a while to make peace with the decision.
- Whether you have a good support network
Although we all experience grief differently, the research shows that people benefit from having a good support network around them.
As we’ve already mentioned, one of the challenges of pet loss is finding people who are understanding and willing to listen. Pet loss is often described as disenfranchised grief because it isn’t always recognised within our wider society or personal networks.
Research from 2019 found that disenfranchised grief in pet carers can directly increase the severity of the grief and inhibit post-traumatic growth, which is a kind of positive psychological change that comes after a loss for some people because they develop a greater appreciation of life, value their relationships more and view the world with more compassion.
People who haven’t experienced pet loss may struggle to understand your connection with your pet or they may see pets as property that can simply be replaced. Similarly, many people without pets assume that, because animals generally have much shorter life spans than humans, we go into having a pet with our eyes open, knowing that we’ll lose them someday – the assumption being that, because we know it’s coming, it hurts less.
All of the above assumptions are clearly wrong.
It’s so important for bereaved pet carers to be able to access support in order to validate their feelings. This might mean talking to a sympathetic friend, speaking to a pet bereavement counsellor or joining a support group like the private Ralph Site support group on Facebook.
Research from 2005 found that people in pet loss support groups directly benefited from being able to talk about and process their loss without embarrassment or the stigma society can still place on grieving for an animal.
Pet loss research also offers a reminder to vets that it is important for them to communicate clearly and with compassion and, even after the event, to be willing to talk through any decisions that were made around a pet’s care to help the pet carer understand what happened as fully as possible.
- How we see the future
Moving forward after pet loss can take time.
Some bereaved pet carers process their loss with a new appreciation for how short and precious life is. Others find themselves frozen in grief for much longer than they might have expected.
Inevitably, the question comes up of if or when to offer a home to another pet. For some people, it isn’t a choice – for example, if they need an assistance dog to live independently – but this can still lead to feelings of guilt or of it being “too soon”.
Some people find that their pet has left such a big hole in their life that a new pet is the only way to fill it. This isn’t always straight forward though as the pet carer worries that they’re trying to replace their loved one or that they’re forgetting them (not that this is true in any way).
Others struggle to imagine ever welcoming a pet into their lives again and this can cause a huge shift in identity and sense of purpose.
The future can be particularly daunting if your daily routines or social life revolved around your pet.
Confirming what we already knew about pet loss grief
The growing body of research into pet loss grief really just serves to reinforce what bereaved pet carers already know – that the pain of pet loss is valid, real and an inevitable part of losing someone we love.
Society often views pet loss grief as an over-reaction or a substitute for other types of grief (for example, research by Liz Margolies in 1999 suggested that women become ‘hyperattached’ to pets
It’s clear that pet loss presents some unique challenges, especially in terms of coping with guilt or finding support.
Hopefully, this recent review of the available research will remind counsellors, GPs, psychologists or social workers (or, indeed, anyone who knows a bereaved pet carer) that they have a vital role to play in helping the person to cope with their loss.
If you do need support or would like to talk about your pet loss grief, The Ralph Site pet loss support group on Facebook is there for you.
You are not alone.
Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support