There is a Stigma on Grieving the Loss of a Pet, But It Has to Stop
You linger in the bed in the morning to play over and over again the last video you took of her. You take everything in: the energetic way she ran around the yard, the cute swaying movement her butt made as she walked down the paved park.
And then it dawns on you. She’s gone. Your baby is gone. The little ball of light and energy you so lovingly raised is never coming back. “Crossed the rainbow bridge,” as many put it. But where exactly is the rainbow bridge? Why do people think your baby will be happier on the rainbow bridge, without you, her favorite treats, and the toys she was almost always unwilling to share with anyone. Why should anyone think there is a better place for your pet other than beside you and under your protective care?
You feel something heavy in your heart. Is it pain? Resentment? Regret? A hodgepodge of them all?
You think a loss this painful can only happen in movies. You thought this kind of pain never happens over a pet. But it does, and right now, at this very moment, you’re wallowing in it.
Talking to someone about it might help. But who is there to talk to? You’re pretty sure pain over losing something so important, but how come no one ever talks about the grief of losing a pet?
The grief associated with losing a pet is the disenfranchised type. It is a type of grief that is not broadly acknowledged; the kind of grief that is borne in silence too often.
Disenfranchised grief is characterized by the lack of support for the mourner. Why the public thinks this type of grief is most apt for those who lost a pet is beyond me.
Experts have long forayed into the complex relationship between humans and animals to explain the unusual relationship between dogs and their pet owners. To learn, ultimately, why human “pet parents” experience such major grief with the passing of their furry companion.
Sandra Barker, director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the Virginia Commonwealth University says that one way to explain it is the biophilia hypothesis. This explains that essentially, humans have an inherent propensity to connect with other living things. The social support theory, or the idea that animals provide a form of nonjudgmental support, is another way to look at it.
True enough, the depth of a relationship between an individual or family and their pet is complex and deep. In fact, I daresay animals become part of the tapestry of our lives. They go beyond simply providing us comic relief after a long day. Their comfort rises above boops, belly rubs, and endless tail-chasing; they improve our mental health and our well-being in general. Pets are (I daresay emphatic) company for the lonely, and they provide comfort to the distressed.
In the age of social media, the complexity of the relationship between human and animal is often apparent from the outside. But what might miss the eyes of the onlooker are the tiny, fleeting moments that build up – as they do between people – into something meaningful and rich. When it’s time for the pet to go, this intricacy is reflected in the ways people cope with and grieve their loss.
When we make the decision to put a pet down, the grief associated with their death can become even more complicated. For many, the decision to euthanize a pet is compounded by the fact that we have no way to learn their wishes; we can’t ask them what they want. The choice we make is entirely on our own, and both the responsibility and guilt of it can be devastating.
No Hard and Fast Rule for Mourning
Only recently, I have seen a post where a “fur parent” lost all six of her dogs to canine parvovirus. She went all out to give her babies a proper burial, caskets, flowers, framed photos, a mini shrine that contained their favorite plush toys – the works. It was beautiful, the way she honored the life of her furry companions. But you should have seen the comment section. While many extended their sympathy, some spat comments that ranged from “wow, what a grand ceremony for a dead dog” to “isn’t it a bit overboard?”
Perhaps, this is why many pet owners feel they do not have adequate avenues to express their grief. Some may even say that they did not feel properly supported by those who surround them.
Having lost a pet in the past, I can attest to this. I cried the entire night and turned up at work the next day. I felt needed a time off work, but I felt uncomfortable asking for a break. I never talked about my loss, not until several years later, when I was comfortable enough to recall my departed pet’s memory. The truth is, while animals are generally accepted as part of the family, an overwhelming perception their passing is not a truly valid grief still exists.
This is the reason many device their own coping mechanisms. While people often follow traditions associated with the passing of family, responding to the death of a pet is much more varied. In fact, there’s now an entire industry devoted to helping pet owners preserve their pets’ memories by creating mementos. There are, for example, small businesses that create jewelry and key rings out of the mane of a pet horse that has died.
Some people wore their dogs’ collars as a bracelet until they were ready to let go. Some keep photos of their departed pets in a locket. Some people craved distance, while others craved closeness with the remains of their pets. Some choose to center their attention towards work and family. Some turn to antidepressants. Many dealt with their grief with tattoos, immortalizing the path their pet has taken on this earth with a paw print inked permanently into their skin.
However they choose to grieve, it’s always valid. Mourning the loss of a pet is valid.
If a cold, wet nose and a fuzzy face has warmed your heart, please reach out to a grieving pet parent when the opportunity comes. People who mourn their pets appreciate empathy – a sincere understanding that their grief was normal and real.