Pet bereavement; a hidden pain
If you have ever loved and cherished an animal, you will understand how much they can become a part of the family. So, when their time comes, it is natural to feel bereft, as with any bereavement. Sadly, it is common for those around us to not quite ‘get it’; “It was only a dog…” and “You can just get a new one!” are unfortunately things that are said a bit too frequently to those who are suffering from a pet bereavement.
I have worked as a counsellor with those who are experiencing/have been through this bereavement as well as having conducted interviews with participants as part of my master’s thesis back in 2012. I was prompted most to do this due to my personal experiences. I lost my beloved cocker spaniel in December 2010 after a prolonged period of ‘knowing’ it was going to happen. He was a constant presence in my life since childhood and although I had anticipated his death being difficult, the reality proved harder than I could have imagined. During this time, I turned to the internet and found one forum to be a small source of support following and preceding the event. I received replies from people who really understood and had experienced similar feelings themselves.
However, I was struck during the weeks after he died how little support is really provided in society for people who have experienced pet bereavement. There is very little understanding of the attachment we develop with pets and the potential impact of losing a pet. I found that many people were unsure of how to react to me about the death and many could not understand why it had affected me to such an extent. I feel that this lack of understanding and expectation to be ‘okay’ afterwards from society is a further cause of distress and isolation for those who experience the grief of pet loss.
Although I had come to terms with and processed Gingers death by the time I began my research, I was able to heal and grow further from those I spoke with; participants, internet forums and online diaries and the literature.
As you can tell, this is a subject that is close to my heart. Therefore, it is not surprising that I feel it is so important to talk about and draw awareness to it within the public eye. I was overwhelmed by the huge number of people I encountered in the dissertation process who felt the same way and who needed an outlet to talk about their experience. Many shared with me how they feel that they ‘shouldn’t’ be feeling they way they do, and therefore were unlikely to seek support for it.
I was really struck, not just by the intensity of their grief, but by the lack of societal acknowledgement of their feelings and the need to talk about it that was not met by those around them. The participants continually indicated their desire to share their stories with me and the importance to do so in keeping their pets memories alive. There were a wide range of emotions that surfaced; including guilt, sadness, confusion, anger and loneliness. This just goes to show how complex and misunderstood this experience can be.
I wanted to write this in the hope that it will reach someone suffering. To anyone who has perhaps lost a pet, recently or otherwise, and has struggled but has felt unable to seek support; I want to send the message that it IS okay to feel bereavement and that your feelings are valid.