The bond between human and animals is strong. Pets can offer unconditional love and acceptance, a relationship that parallels that of humans. For many, companion animals are loving members of the family, often like a surrogate child. When a pet is diagnosed with an illness, whether acute or terminal, that is often stressful on pets and their families. The feelings of a caregiver to a sick pet are not always recognized or supported by family, friends, or the work place. PVESC realizes the importance of supporting pet families.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THAT BOND IS BROKEN DUE TO PET LOSS?
The death of a pet severs the human-animal bond, resulting in a significant disruption to the daily routine. Pet owners can experience significant grief when their pet dies. Studies have found that losing a pet, for many, is as intense as the loss of a human. The bond can even exceed that of the bond with a person; therefore, bereavement following the death of a pet can last longer or feel more intense.
ATTACHMENT & GRIEF
Grief is a normal reaction to the loss of a loved one. Grief, bereavement and mourning are all used to describe the reaction to losing someone you love (human or animal). Attachment with a pet and the context in which the pet passes greatly influence the intensity of grief.
The way you grieve can be affected by many different factors:
- whether the death was expected or unexpected
- your relationship with the one who has died
- your personality, cultural, spiritual and religious beliefs
- how you have coped with loss before
- the support systems in your life (family, friends and spiritual, religious and social communities)
THERE IS NO “RIGHT” WAY TO GRIEVE
No one can tell you how you should grieve, when you should feel certain emotions or in what order. Your grief is a very personal experience, and your feelings do not have to follow any path but your own.
Grief over the loss of a pet is compounded; however, our culture doesn’t always recognize that grief over a pet is legitimate, leaving owners to hide their grief (disenfranchised grief). Pet owners may be discouraged from openly mourning their loss. They may be told to move on or to merely replace their beloved animal with another. It’s crucial to know that the feelings one may experience over the loss of a pet are normal and legitimate, regardless of the messages others may give.
- Anticipatory grief is a feeling of grief that occurs before an impending loss, as in the case with a terminal illness or an ailing senior pet. Pet owners often feel grief even though their pet is still alive. The grief can be more for the loss of the way things were, the life before the illness or the anticipatory thoughts of what it will be like without the pet. Not everyone experiences anticipatory grief, but those who do can feel emotions similar to those as if the pet has already died. Loss, guilt, anger and anxiety are all normative bereavement emotions. Grieving before a loved one dies doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t grieve when they pass away. Reactions vary. While some feel prepared for the death and have closure, others may start the grieving process all over again.
- Traumatic injury or sudden loss of a pet due to unexpected events can result in intense feelings of guilt, anger, fear, sadness and powerlessness. Sudden bereavement often means that a person’s life feels ripped apart by the death. Every sudden death is unique. Initially, for the first few days, one may be in shock. In later weeks, common thoughts and reactions can include regret, insomnia, nightmares, physical illness, intrusive thoughts and isolation. The suddenly bereaved person might seek out places, or do things, that remind them of the pet who died.
Eventually, through the normative grief process, one will accept the death, and move forward with their life yet still feel sad at times. If symptoms persist (traumatic or complicated grief), then consider reaching out to a trusted friend, family member, talking to a professional, or joining a support group. Again, it’s important to remember that for some, the loss of a pet can be as profound, and sometimes more profound, as the loss of a human. The grief associated with that loss is normal. It’s generally best to work through the grief over one’s deceased pet before getting a new pet. Quickly replacing a pet can complicate grief. Taking time to mourn is recommended.
For more information or support in coping with pet illness or loss, please reference the provided list of resources.