Understanding Pet Loss Grief Part 1: Why Pets Matter

Understanding Pet Loss Grief Part 1: Why Pets Matter

Pet loss grief is often misunderstood in our society. The death of a pet can feel isolating and lonely because this type of grief is not widely acknowledged publicly.

If you are caring for a terminally ill pet, or your pet has died, you may be experiencing pet loss grief and you may be feeling alone or misunderstood.

This article series on pet loss will help you learn more about pet loss grief and how to find support.

Grief: The Other Side of Love

Grief and love are two sides of one coin. Some people believe that grief is the price we pay for love.

This paradox comes into play with our pets because many companion animals have much shorter life spans than humans.

Mentally, we may realize that we will have to say goodbye to our pet one day. But it can be hard for our heart to really accept it when that time comes.

If you have opened your heart to your pet, you will feel certainly the pain of grief when they die. This is part of loving.

I appreciate what the well-known grief expert Dr. Alan Wolfelt has said: “To honor your grief is not self-destructive or harmful.”

Let’s remember that as we explore pet loss grief. It’s okay to honor the depth of your sadness when a pet dies. Your grief is proof that you have loved.

The Human-Animal Bond

The human-animal bond is a very real phenomenon that can be traced throughout history. Animals have been an important part of human lives for a very long time.

Many ancient Egyptians are said to have loved their cats so much that they would shave off an eyebrow as a sign of mourning whenever a cat died.

There is also archeological evidence found that puppies and dogs were treated as companions throughout history.

One discovery from 14,000 years ago showed that an ill puppy was lovingly cared for during a severe illness. Researchers see the care that was given to the puppy as the earliest evidence of humans treating an animal as a valued pet.

While the human-animal bond is not new, more than ever before in history, many humans now consider pets to be family members.

Pets bring unconditional love, comfort and companionship into our lives, and they can have a truly healing presence.

When a pet dies, it can leave a significant hole in your life. The death of a pet is a significant loss that deserves to be honored.

What is Pet Bereavement?

You may not have heard the term “pet bereavement” before. Let’s break it down so we can understand it.

The word pet is thought to come from the Scottish Gaelic word “paeta” which means ‘tame animal’.

The word bereavement comes from the old English and can mean “to rob”.

Taking these words and their origins together, we can start to understand how pet bereavement may feel.

Being robbed or deprived of a trusted pet’s love and companionship could describe pet bereavement.

Some people are surprised by how much grief they feel when a much loved pet dies. But, in fact is it very common to feel profound grief in pet bereavement.

In fact, research has found that pet bereavement can often cause feelings that are similar to the grief that happens when another human dies.

One factor that can influence the experience of pet bereavement is the strength of the human-animal bond.

Why Pets Matter

Pets can play a very important role in our lives and research backs this up.

At least one study found that 63% of pet owners consider their pet to be a family member. This number may actually be even higher.

Another very interesting study found greater well-being in people who consider their pet to be a family member. So, there may be real benefits for having a strong human-animal bond with a pet!

We know that strong attachments can form between people and pets – even similar to human-human attachments.

Pets can be a consistent and safe source of affection, loyalty, acceptance and companionship.

In our modern society, the role of pets in emotional healing has recently become more widely accepted – with therapy animals becoming integrated into many settings.

Studies have shown that when compared to non-pet owners, many pet owners tend to have lower blood pressure, lower rates of heart disease, lower loneliness, and lower depression.

And, interestingly, it seems that having a pet may positively affect self-esteem.

Clearly, there can be many possible benefits to having a pet or companion animal.

But we don’t just love our pets for the benefits they bring us. We love them for who they are – their unique quirks, personalities and habits. We have very specific, very personal reasons for why we love our pets so much.

And, when a pet dies, it’s important to feel acknowledged. Our pet is not replaceable and the grief we feel when a pet dies is very real.

Honoring the Loss

Part of grieving a pet’s death can involve understanding all the roles they played in our life. Things may feel very empty, quiet, and different – even lonely – when a pet dies.

Take some time to think about the various roles your pet played in your life.

Some common roles that pets play include being a life witness, being a source of emotional support and being a loyal companion during times that others are not with us.

Maybe your dog moved across the country with you and served as a secure base while you met new people and started a new life.

Or, perhaps your cat was a companion during a difficult divorce or breakup, or even while you were grieving the death of a close family member or friend.

Our pets see us through all sorts of life circumstances and we often come to rely on their warm, steady companionship.

Other roles that pets commonly play may include aiding in social interactions, giving a sense of purpose, and lending a sense of identity.

Maybe your dog made it easier to meet your neighbors. Perhaps everyone in your apartment building knows you because of your friendly cat.

Sometimes taking care of our pet can also give us a sense of meaning and purpose.

When a pet dies, one’s identity as their caregiver dies too.

There are so many different ways that pet loss can affect our relationships with others and our very personal of identity.

The death of a beloved pet can have ripple effects throughout one’s entire life. It’s important to honor all the ways your pet’s death will affect your life.

Coping with Pet Loss

Research has shown that the strength of your human-animal bond, and your level of attachment with your pet, may affect your grief experience.

It’s so important for you to feel supported as you adjust to life after the loss of your pet or companion animal.

Seeking support in honoring, expressing and acknowledging your grief can be a healthy way to move through the death of a pet.

Here are some options that may be helpful:

1- Phone Support Lines

Recognizing the need for pet loss support, several veterinary colleges and organizations have created pet loss support hotlines, to provide safe places for grieving pet owners to seek a listening ear.

Please note that these are not mental health hotlines but are typically support lines staffed by trained pet loss volunteers or veterinary students.

The Lap of Love Pet Loss and Bereavement Resource Line (855-352-5683) is an outreach of the Lap of Love network of veterinary hospice organizations. According to their website, the support line is available Monday through Friday from 10 am to 9 pm EST.

The Pet Loss Support Helpline from Cornell University (607-218-7457) is staffed by volunteer veterinary students who were trained by a grief counselor. According to their website, the support line is available on Tuesday evenings from 6-9 pm EST.

Finally, the Tufts University Pet Loss Support Helpline (508-839-7966) is staffed by volunteer veterinary students and according to their website, is available Monday through Friday from 6-9 pm EST.

There may be additional phone support resources available and you are encouraged to consult with your local veterinarian about phone support resources.

2- Grief Counseling

If you are experiencing profound pet loss grief symptoms – including anxiety or depression symptoms -it may be helpful to seek support from a counselor.

At Modern Era Counseling, we provide grief counseling to North Carolina residents and would be honored to work with you. Click here to get started now.

Please note that if you are experiencing severe distress or having suicidal thoughts, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-8255.

3- Pet Loss Support Groups

In your local area, there may be in-person pet loss support group options. You can ask your veterinarian for recommendations specific to your area.

You may also want to check out online support options from the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement, such as their pet loss chat rooms. Click here to visit their website.

Finally, for a non-exhaustive listing of in-person pet loss support groups, you can visit Everlife Memorials. This organization has compiled a national listing that may be helpful in your search for support groups. Click here to visit their website.

Learn More About Pet Loss Grief

This article is the first in our series on pet loss. Part 2 in this series will be published soon. Check back soon to learn more about pet loss grief and how to find support.

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