Grieving Over a Pet
Often, losing a pet is greeted with an immense sense of loss, and for good reason. A pet is more than just an animal, or source of amusement. When we share our homes, and subsequently our hearts, with a companion animal, they become treasured friends that are as loving as they are reliable. Indeed, a pet becomes a constant in our lives, and the main sense that we gather from them is that they are ultimately, and endlessly, devoted to us. While it may sound somewhat childish, a pet can truly make us feel special. This is especially true for dog owners, who are greeted everyday by their overly excited companions, who seem to have waited all their lives for the moment when we come home. This is not to say that only a dog can provide this sense of love, as even fish acknowledge their parents, even if it is only because they know they are a source of food. Regardless of the type of animal, their simple and silent natures are a wonderfully comforting presence in our homes, and a great source of comfort when we feel stressed, alone, or even depressed. In fact, it is interesting to note that studies have found pet owners to be less likely to suffer from emotional issues such as depression, anxiety, and insomnia. While this may seem far fetched to those non-pet owners, any one who has lived with, and loved, a companion animal, can attest to the therapeutic qualities that the relationship we share with them can have. In short, this just goes to explain the great impact that a pet can have in our lives, as well as the great void we feel when they must, unfortunately, depart our world. Pet loss can be difficult to understand, especially from an outside perspective, so here will explain how grieving over the loss of a companion animal is more than justified.
The main thing to keep in mind about grieving over a pet is that it is very natural and healthy. In fact, if you find yourself not grieving when a beloved pet has died, that may be cause for alarm from a mental health perspective, as noted by experts in the field of mental health. This warning comes at a time when crying and grieving over a pet is slowly becoming less and less socially acceptable - a harmful trend many doctors and other professionals say. It is sad that in our modern world where virtually anything is, to an extent, acceptable, the bond that we feel with a companion animal is shunned as ridiculous; when in days of old, it was appreciated as our ability to feel humility and empathy for all creatures. Some critics of modern society have begun referring to the “disenfranchised griever” of pets, which really is a person who continues to practice healthy grieving over a pet, but who is ostracized or belittled for doing so. Again, it is very important to acknowledge the loss of a treasured companion, and face the grief that ensues, rather than supress it. This is especially true, considering that suppressing such strong emotions can have dire negative effects down the road.
To help keep disenfranchised grieving over pets to a minimum, here are some tips that all of society can follow to help a grieving pet owner find his her way back to peace of mind.
First, you should resist the urge to chuckle at the idea of National Pet Memorial Day observed on the second Sunday each September by Pet Cemeteries across North America. More than a few comedians over the years have devoted some of their routines to cleverly questioning the need for pet cemeteries, pet caskets and even ash vessels for pets, and this sort of thing only helps isolate the disenfranchised griever. Rather than laughing at and making snide comments about those grieving over a pet, a healthier thing to do would be to take National Pet Memorial Day seriously. Why not send a friend a card or letter to let him or know that you think it is okay to grieve out loud over a lost pet. If not that, as the old saying goes, "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all". Losing a treasured companion that brings love and comfort to us, and even improves our overall quality of life, is certainly nothing to laugh at or make fun of. In fact, it is more appropriate to say that one would have to truly be - for lack of a better term - cold-hearted to not feel a pang of loss and sadness upon the passing of a companion that is devotedly at our sides. If we do not feel grief at losing such a living creature, than it can even be argued that it is inappropriate to grieve at all, regardless of what the loss may have been.
Next, remember that grieving over pets has long been a part of our Western culture, and only recently has it become somewhat strange. In ancient Egypt, for example, custom held that cat owners would shave their eyebrows upon the death of their beloved friend, and, in the case of dogs, they shaved their entire body. Going back even further, we see that the legendary Homer even acknowledged that grief over pets is an important part of life. When Homer’s famous Odysseus returned home from his far flung voyage, the only being to recognize him immediately was his beloved dog Argos. Homer’s tale of the reunion between dog and man makes it clear that Odysseus had assumed he would never see his faithful friend again and had mourned him all throughout his journey. If, arguably, the bravest, most heroic figure in all of the history of Western literature can break down and grieve over a pet, then, surely, modern man should be eager to do the same as necessary. This again goes to point out the unfortunate loss of empathy that seems to be prevalent in our modern age.
Likewise, scientists have recently uncovered evidence that pets may actually mourn each other. Cats and dogs whose household companions have died have been shown in a few studies to exhibit notably more sluggish behavior in the absence of the “friend.” While the research is still very inconclusive on this topic, there is certainly evidence that warrants further investigation, and it seems possible that the age-old mystical idea that animals have feelings much the same as humans, may actually have some scientific backing. One of our own witnessed this first hand after the loss of their beloved dog. The cat, that seemingly enjoyed nothing more than making the dog's life as miserable as possible, became very anxious after the absence of the lost companion became obvious. The cat began being extremely vocal for no reason, or hid away as if afraid of his family - niether of which was usual behavior for the cat - and it was weeks before he returned to his normal behavior. This, again, just goes to show that grieving a loss, regardless if it is of a pet or person, is simply a part of our most basic level of nature.
In summary, the best way to be of service to someone who is grieving over a pet is to simply remember, yourself, that grieving over a pet is completely a natural process. In fact, it is the people who do not grieve over a pet who may have the most significant concerns. Keep in mind that it is very inappropriate to belittle the grief felt by a pet parent, no matter what the circumstance is. Comments like, "whats the big deal, it was just a cat" or even "don't worry, you can always just adopt another" are more harmful than good during this difficult time. Remember, even if you don't understand the extent of the grief, to the pet parent, the companion was irreplaceable. Just as we are all unique individuals (even twins that share the same outward appearance), our pets have their own, distinct personalities and characteristics, which will never be the same from pet to pet, even if they are from the same breed or litter. If you are not sure how to comfort a friend or family member who is struggling with such a loss, simply listening to them cry or vent, without judgement, can be a great show of support for the loved one, and a truly appreciated gesture. Some even find that offering the bereaved individual a simple pet keepsake as a condolence gift, such as the garden stone to the right, can be a wonderful tool during the healing process and is sufficient to let someone know that they are not alone. Regardless, offering support, rather than belittling or poking fun (as in any other aspect of life) is the greatest treasure anyone can ask for.
When a friend or loved one has lost a beloved pet, most any caring person’s natural reaction is to want to say or do something to bring comfort, but for many, the words do not always come naturally. While one may understand that their friend or relative is saddened by the loss of a companion animal, they may not be able to grasp to what extent the grief is affecting them. As we have mentioned in other articles, the grief that is brought on by the passing of a pet is often down played by main stream media. Those that openly mourn the death of pets are deemed mentally unstable, and can even be ostracized for their actions. This is mainly because it can be difficult to understand the bond that is created with a treasured companion animal, especially for those who have not owned a pet. With that said, comments and actions can easily be misinterpreted as uncaring to those who have just lost a pet, given their emotional state of mind. For many grieving pet parents, it can be painful to see others so unaffected by a loss that can seem unbearable to them, and it can be hard to understand that those individuals are not trying to be callous, but simply cannot grasp the profound grief that is felt. Even those who have the best of intentions - for example, suggesting that the grieving owner adopt another pet - can unintentionally offend the individual that is mourning. In fact, the wrong words can even cause unintended strains on relationships with friends or family who are suffering the loss of their companion.
There are various books on the loss of pets and writings that offer great insight into what happens when one loses a pet. These will be a great reference, and will provide a better understanding of what it is like to lose a companion animal. Here are a few key notes that experts offer to help loved ones through what, for many people, can be one of the most traumatic experiences of their lives.
The first thing to remember is that all people grieve differently. So, no matter how nicely you say it, telling someone to “just get over” the loss of a pet, is usually not helpful, experts say. This also includes comments such as, "I don't get it, it was just a dog", or as stated above, "you can always adopt another". To some, this suggestion can even seem to say that the person suggesting is tired of hearing about their loss, or unwilling to put up with them in their current state. To the outsider, the lost pet is simply an animal, but for those who have lived with, and loved, the pet, they are a true friend - a being that has great significance in their lives. The pet that is lost had his or her own, individual characteristics that they came to know and love, and that is certainly something that cannot be replaced. Moreover, their lost companion has brought them many years of joy, comfort, and laughter, and many, many happy memories are shared with the lost friend. So, telling someone that 'it was just an animal' or that they 'can just go adopt another' is like telling them that they can replace their lost family member, which - it goes without saying - is impossible. If one is at a loss of words, simply lending a shoulder to cry on or an ear to listen is a lot more meaningful than a half-felt apology, and definitely more appreciated than being rushed into getting a replacement pet so they can 'get over it'. Have a little patience with the person that is grieving, eventually they will come around, and being supportive and understanding of them will help them get back to a better frame of mind sooner.
It’s natural for a person to feel upset over the loss of a pet even months or years after the death. Rather than to keep these feelings pent up, it’s important for the grieving pet owner to simply vent. Listening without comment, then, is probably the most valuable gift one can give, even if the loss happened a while ago. Being non-judgmental and open to all reactions – no matter how unusual they may be at first glance – is crucial to helping a friend cope with the grieving process. Even if your friend or family member appears to be “over-doing” the grief of a lost pet, the best course is to just listen, experts say. The grief will eventually heal itself.
Avoid the temptation to psychoanalyze a friend who is stricken with grief over the loss of a pet. The various “stages” of grief are much written about, and they apply to pet loss as well as to the loss of humans. But even experts have trouble telling when a person is in one “stage” and out of another. To complicate matters, the stages often overlap, and all people do not necessarily go through all of them. So trying to react to -and heal - a friend’s grief based upon a generic prescription for dealing with certain stages is risky business at best. A small miscalculation regarding just exactly which stage of grief a person is in can lead to body language and comments that may only add to a friend’s pain. In summary, experts say, you should simply let a person grieve naturally for the loss of his or her beloved pet. Any type of behavior from your friend is natural and helpful. Avoid judgmental references and, when you can, re-direct any judgmental thoughts you discover in your mind. Just letting a grieving person cope with his or her pain in such a simple, natural manner will do amazing wonders for the lives of those in grief over a lost pet.
For those who would like to offer their condolences, but cannot find a way to do so, there are various ways to let someone know that they are in your thoughts. Just as when a person dies, one can bring a plate of food to the home of the grieving individual. Their are in a state of mind in which nutrition is not the first concern, and this simple action will not only bring them sustenance, but also let them know that you are there if they need anything. A small condolence gift, such as flowers, are also appropriate during these times, but it is very important not to over do it. A sympathy gift should be small and something that is related to the subject at hand. If flowers feel a little too impersonal, a pet keepsake such as a memory box in which the pet's mementos can be placed, or a decorative frame to display their photo are very heartwarming. These small tokens will serve a great purpose during the individual's grieving period, as they will remind them that while the pet is gone, they are certainly not forgotten.