Self, Heartbreak

Losing A Pet Hurts Just Like Any Other Loss — So Don't Apologize!

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grief and loss

Grief is the psychological process of adaptation that comes after the loss of a loved one. It's a universal experience that almost everyone goes through in a lifetime.

When we lose someone dear to us, we're forced to adjust to a new reality in which our loved one isn't there.

And pet owners go through this same grief process, as well.  

This likely seems obvious to pet owners, however, others (non-pet-lovers) often find the intense suffering and pain pet owners experience hard to understand.

Insensitive statements like: “You can just get a new one”, “It was just an animal,” or “Get over it” are frequent responses when someone openly grieves the loss of their pet in front of others.

But it turns out, the psychological process of grief that we go through after the loss of a pet is similar to that of a human loss. Grief doesn't depend on the characteristics of the being that has left us, it depends on the love and attachment we had for that being.

Having said this, there are three aspects of pet grieving that differentiate an animal loss from a human loss:

  • Negative social attitudes
  • Guilt and shame for caring
  • The absence of culturally normalized grief rituals

If you've lost a beloved pet and are struggling with how society is trivializing your pain, here are a few things to remember: 

1. You don't need to validate your grief to others.

Grieving without apology is the best way to begin healing. 

In a study lead by Adams et al. (2000), 50 percent of the people who grieved the loss of a pet felt society didn't consider their loss worthy of grief. There is no real social value given to the loss of a pet, they're considered replaceable, therefore we often don't legitimatize the relationship established between pet and owner.

Negating the suffering people feel when their pet dies hinders the emotional healing of those going through the process. They may feel the need to act as if nothing has happened soon after the loss, or they could stop themselves from sharing how they feel or asking for help for fear of being judged.

How to deal with this: It's important to surround yourself with people you feel comfortable with and with whom you can share your feelings honestly. It's essential to keep doing your day-to-day activities, but don't feel you have to wear a mask. 

Finding a group with similar values to your own can be beneficial. It's essential that you find a space to freely express whatever it is you feel. The internet is a great place to find support, too. Talk about all the memories you have of your pet. Share with others what your pet meant to you and what made him/ her unique. 

2. You did your best you could to take care of your pet.

Guilt usually plays an part in pet grief. Two things explain the intense guilt people often feel when a pet dies: The type of bond we had with our pets, and the existence/amount of pet deaths that happen via euthanasia.

On the one hand, the bond established between pet and owner is a dependent one: The animal's well-being depends completely on the owner, therefore, the sense of responsibility regarding the animal’s health and well-being can trigger guilt after the loss. This guilt usually appears in the form of residual feeling of “I should have done something more.”

On the other hand, the decision to euthanize a pet is always a hard one to make and usually leads to guilt. Some people feel like they're an executioner (though others feel like the gesture is an act of liberating their pet from suffering). The harsher the meaning you give to the act the more intense your guilt will be.

How to deal with this: It's important to remember that everything's clearer with hindsight. You'll probably always find things that could have been handled better. Remember that you're human and you did what you could in a complicated situation with the resources you had.

And perhaps it's interesting to note — guilt actually gives us some sense of control in a situation. If I feel guilty, it means I could have done something different to change the outcome; I'm no longer a passive victim. But reality is way more complicated. Things happen that are out of our control and we can only deal with them the best way we can in the moment.

Talk to someone you trust about any guilt you feel. Don't block the thoughts. Instead, when harsh thoughts come, use positive memories as a cushion you can fall on. If talking is hard for you, try writing through your feelings. Write what you feel and the thoughts that come to you. Don't judge them, just give them an outlet.

3. It's fine to create your own special ceremony.

It's perfectly OK to acknowledge any passing of life with a ceremony. Funerals have an important role in the resolution of grief. They help you make a formal "goodbye" and place the loved one in a different mental place. The absence of formal rituals for pet loss can complicate the resolution of the grieving process, leaving an open end without a public and formal resolution.

How to deal with this: Find a private and meaningful way to celebrate your pet's life. It doesn't have to be something grand. Just focus on honoring your pet’s memory and reaching some sort of closure.

Pet grief is a painful experience, but remember: You've also had the unique experience of enjoying the company of your beloved pet for however long you two were together. Celebrate your pet's life in your ceremony, as well as grieving your pet's death. 

Losing a beloved pet can break your heart.

In the aftermath, keep going in your life and don't isolate yourself. Remember that, even though your pet isn't with you physically, grief isn't about saying "goodbye" forever. It's about tucking your pet away safely in your heart and mind, where you can revisit them when you need to.

Remember to ask for help if you feel you're stuck in the grieving process. Contact a support group or grief counselor near you if you feel the need.

For more information, in a variety of languages, about dealing with grief, visit the website for Sinews Multilingual Therapy Institute.

This article was originally published at Sinews MTI Web. Reprinted with permission from the author.