Why We Need to Take Pet Loss Seriously
How to handle grief after a pet’s death—and why we all need to change our attitudes about it
Doug’s amateur soccer team had just lost their playoff game and he needed a pick-me-up. So he decided to stop by the local animal shelter on his way home. He was by no means looking to adopt an animal but puppies always put a smile on his face. “Rookie mistake,” he told me in our psychotherapy session. “You set foot in one of these places and no way you’re not leaving with a puppy.” Delia, the puppy in question, was a five-month-old mutt. “I had her for seventeen years,” Doug said, wiping tears from his eyes, “Almost my entire adult life. I knew it would be rough when she died but I had no idea…I was a total wreck. I cried for days. I couldn’t get any work done. And worst of all, I was too embarrassed about it to tell anyone, even my old soccer teammates who loved Delia. I spent days at work crying in private and muttering 'allergies' whenever someone glanced at my puffy eyes.”
Losing a beloved pet is often an emotionally devastating experience. Yet, as a society, we do not recognize how painful pet loss can be and how much it can impair our emotional and physical health. Symptoms of acute grief after the loss of a pet can last from one to two months with symptoms of grief persisting up to a full year (on average). The New England Journal of Medicine recently reported that a woman whose dog died experienced Broken Heart Syndrome—a condition in which a person’s response to grief and heartbreak is so severe, they exhibits symptoms that mimic a heart attack, including elevated hormone levels that can be thirty times greater than normal.
While grief over the loss of a cherished pet may be as intense and even as lengthy as when a significant person in our life dies, our process of mourning is quite different. Because pet loss is disenfranchised, many of the societal mechanisms of social and community support are absent when a cherished pet dies. Few of us ask our employers for time off to grieve a beloved cat or dog as we fear doing so would paint us as overly sentimental, lacking in maturity or emotionally weak. And few employers would grant such requests were we to make them. Studies have found that social support is a crucial ingredient in recovering from grief of all kinds. Thus, we are not only robbed of crucial support systems when our pet dies, but our own perceptions of our emotional responses are likely to add an additional layer of emotional distress. We may feel embarrassed and even ashamed about the severity of the heartbreak we feel and consequently, hesitate to disclose our distress to our loved ones. We might even wonder what is wrong with us and question why we are responding in such "disproportional" ways to the loss.
Feeling intense grief that is then layered with shame about these feelings not only makes pet loss a bigger threat to our emotional health than it would be otherwise, it complicates the process of recovery by making it more lengthy and complex than it should be.
Further, given our societal attitude that invokes responses such as “It’s just an animal” and “You can just get another one” we are likely to overlook the variety of ways our lives are impacted by pet loss (both real, practical and psychological), which can blind us to steps we need to take in order to recover. Losing a pet can leave significant voids in our life that we need to fill: It can change our daily routines, causing ripple effects that go far beyond the loss of the actual animal.
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