Pet loss and bereavement

My dentist was one of the most cheerful men I have known. Even though his little jokes to put you at ease were the same each and every time, his calm, jovial and easy manner was always reassuring. Here is the painful bit he would say at the of the consultation, “your bill”.

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But this visit was different. His smile was forced, and he barely spoke. Looking up at him from the chair, he seemed close to tears. I must of looked concerned as he offered an explanation. “My dog died”.

I said I was sorry, that must be tough for you. It was, he said, his voice almost cracking with emotion. “I cried more for my dog than I did when my mum and dad died”, he said, and added hastily, that he loved his parents very much too. I understand, I replied.

Though I didn’t understand. Not at all. My condolence was perfunctory rather than heartfelt. How can grief for an animal be as or more powerful than grief for a loved human? OK, I thought, if your pet dies that must be upsetting, but why is your grief so profound?


Why is our grief for our pets so profound?

Now I do understand. That conversation with my dentist was more than three decades ago. I now know his grief. Having had two beloved companion animals die, one at a good old age, and one cruelly young to aggressive cancer, I now know the depth of grief of a beloved pet dying. 

Our pets really are family. They are a constant in our lives whatever else is going on for us. Research is consistent in the effect of having pets in our lives, from lowering stress and blood pressure, helping with depression and anxiety, and even in increased social engagement, only really confirms what pet owners already know. We are good to our pets, but they repay our love a thousand times over. 

And it is not just cats and dogs that we love, and who enrich our life in return. All companion animals can enrich and bring joy to our lives. Grief for birds, small mammals, insects, in fact any animal that shares our home, is real.

Yet those who do not share the love and companionship of animals are often puzzled by our grief. “It was only a cat” they may say, or suggest that you can “just buy another one”.  A perennial sitcom sketch is a hapless pet minder replacing a pet that dies in their care with another animal in the hope that the owner won’t be able to tell upon their return. Most everything in life is open to comedy or farce, but I think this particular scenario perfectly demonstrates how non pet lovers don’t understand people’s bond with their pets.

Grief and moving on

As a society we are uncomfortable with demonstrations of grief, and sometimes it can seem that to display grief is begrudgingly tolerated, whether our loss is another human or a companion pet. We are expected to display a “stiff upper lip” and continue with our lives as if the death never happened.

Human death brings its own rituals and with them an expectation that our grief is acknowledged. But often, after the initial condolence, visits and phone calls stop, and neighbours and former friends seem to disappear from our lives.

Yet pet owners are often denied even this initial polite display of condolence and little compassion, and are expected to continue with their life, their work and relationships as if the death of their pet was akin to a minor inconvenience. Society in general, at least in the UK, is uncomfortable with death and grief, and so in a way it is hardly surprising that pet owners are afforded so little understanding when their pet dies.

This societal rejection of our feelings can compound our raw grief, leaving us feeling that we have no one that we can share our distress with. Sometimes we can even begin to question the validity of our own natural feelings.

Reaction to your loss from others, if the loss is acknowledged at all, can be shallow and insincere and sometimes downright callous. From the boss who expects you to be in work the next day, to the friend who reacts by telling you that now it will be easier to go on holiday, we don’t get the support we need. Even people who do understand our grief may not be able to offer the time and support we need.

Your grief needs to be acknowledged. A pet dying can bring up so much for us. We may recognise the impermanence of all life, including our own, our past griefs, animal and human, that were never fully expressed, and sometimes feeling of guilt if we made the right but heart wrenching decision to have our beloved pet put to sleep.

We may regret delaying seeking treatment for our pet or conversely think that veterinary treatment we arranged worsened our pet’s health or quality of life. Sometimes we regret not fully appreciating our pet when our pet was living and spending more time with them.  

For some, the death of their pet can exacerbate other mental health concerns such as anxiety, depression and social isolation. Talking to a counsellor in a safe and confidential environment can help, just as it does when a loved human dies.

Your grief matters, and it can help to talk. Do get in touch if you would like to book an appointment with me.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Liverpool, Merseyside, L37 6DN
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Written by Stephen Garvey, Fully Qualified Person Centred Counsellor, NCS accredited.
Liverpool, Merseyside, L37 6DN

Stephen Garvey is an experienced person centred counsellor based in Formby, Merseyside. He has a particular interest in counselling people with anxiety and social anxiety. He has a private and discreet office to meet with clients.

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