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Pet-keeping is one of the closest forms of human-animal interaction in Western society. Although owner-pet relationships may stem from genetically based inclinations that attract humans to other living beings, other reasons for pet ownership include providing stability (Brickel, 1986), reciprocal love, affection (Bradshaw, 2017) and a sense of self (Belk, 1988).
In other words, research shows that the depth of our affection towards our pets can exceed that of our close relatives and even romantic partners (Margolies, 1999; Beck and Madresh, 2008).
When they pass
So, it is no wonder that when a pet dies the grieving process we go through is similar to what would be experienced if a human family member or close friend died. When a pet passes it can also impact the owner’s social contact with others; daily dog walks where we may chat to others suddenly stop, and this can contribute to the feeling of being isolated and alone. For owners reliant on their pet for assistance work, these emotions may be even more complex where they may feel an increased sense of vulnerability without their pet’s support.
Although the death of an animal is an enviable part of pet ownership, it is not a widely discussed subject. According to one survey, 49% of owners took time off work to grieve upon the death of their pet (Direct Line, 2018), 40% took annual leave, called in sick or said there had been a family bereavement rather than tell their employer the truth. With some companies now offering ‘pawternity leave’ upon purchase of a new pet, and research into pet-owner attachment gaining momentum, plus the wide-spread media attention that pets have had during the pandemic, I would argue that never before has there been such recognition of the significant role pets have in our lives.
Yet there is a deficit of tools to help owners with the support they may need when their animal dies.
I have loved and lost so many wonderful pets of differing species over the years, and today marks the anniversary of my dog Howard passing. I will never forget that morning when Howard died. I typically go downstairs at 6.30am, on this day it was 7am as I allowed myself the luxury of cuddles in bed with the kids. When I went downstairs I found Howard laying there, still warm and I howled. I cannot begin to tell you how guilty I felt about not coming down sooner and not being there with him to the end…In fact, this is the first time I have openly discussed Howard’s death and my feelings.
Pet bereavement can be crippling, especially where the level of owner-pet attachment is high. The Kübler-Ross model is often used to describe the five stages of grief that people can go through:
However, this is not a linear process by which someone experiencing grief follows. These stages can be inter-changeable, occurring at any time upon the loss of a loved one.
In addition, the development of attitudes relating to grief can be influenced by many factors. This can include religious, cultural, and social norms, genetics, and the individual’s previous experiences of death. When we take into consideration these factors, as well as the individual’s coping style, the nature of the owner-pet relationship and nature of the pet’s death itself, these influence whether a person experiences ‘normal’ grief, which is a relatively short-term phenomenon, or develops complicated grief.
The latter can last many months or years and can lead to a lower level of well-being, even Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (Roberts et al., 2016). Cases where owners are most at risk include those that have experienced an unexpected loss of their animal through sudden illness, a road-traffic accident, theft, accidental shock, or poisoning, even murder.
A broken heart
In some cases, the loss of a pet can be so upsetting that sudden physiological changes occur. In 2017, Joanie Simpson’s case formed the basis of a published paper in the New England Journal of Medicine – she was diagnosed with takotsubo cardiomyopathy, a condition with symptoms that mimic heart attacks and typically occurs following an emotional event, such as the loss of a spouse or child. Joanie’s beloved dog Meha had not long died, and doctors believe it was Meha’s death that led to Joanie’s illness, commonly known as ‘broken-heart syndrome’.
What all of this tells us is that coping mechanisms in dealing with grief vary amongst individuals. And, importantly, data shows that those who attend grief support groups show fewer post-traumatic stress symptoms than those who do not (Cacciatore, 2007).
So, I would encourage anyone who has recently suffered a loss to reach out to trained professionals, as well-meaning statements many of us make, such as “I am sorry for your loss”, fail to provide the genuine support needed to help those grieving (Carbone, 2019). This is where valuable support systems such as the Blue Cross Pet Bereavement call line can help. They enable owners to speak in confidence, where they may be feeling overwhelmed or feel unable to speak openly with friends and family about their pet loss. I have popped their details below.
There are other ways that owners can also find some relief following the loss of their treasured pet and that is through memorisation ceremonies, planting a tree, drawing, writing and more. To understand grief better, I studied and qualified as a Pet Bereavement Counsellor a few years ago. This gave me a unique perspective on the owner-animal relationship after death, as well as the counsellor-owner relationship. Consequently, I have created a Pet Grief Journal for pet owners who, like myself, want to capture and record their thoughts, feelings, and memories following the death of their beloved animal companion. Included within this journal are pages for you to stick in photographs, write down your thoughts and reflect upon some of your fond memories together. I have also included some guided suggestions for how you can celebrate your pet’s life, along with some poems and quotes that may help to heal the hurt.
To further support owners, I will be launching soon a specific course for pet owners about pet grief, to help provide a safe place to better understand their feelings, why grief differs between one another, and help owners find some strength. So keep checking back on my online Learning Hub for that specific course.
In the meantime, I do hope that this article gives you some comfort and peace for all who have loved and lost pets.