More than "Just a Pet":
Coping with Pet Loss Bereavement

 

 

 
 


Distraught” was the subject of the post on one of the online Pet Loss chat groups few weeks ago. The author of the post, a woman who had recently euthanized her beloved dog, described her devastation and sheer sorrow over her loss. She described feelings of shame and guilt, and stated, “life is almost unbearable right now…”

She is not alone! Statistics Canada suggests that one or more pets occupy about half of the Canadian households! Of the millions pet owners in Canada, many have or will experience the pain of eventually losing their beloved companion animal. Nature has it that in most cases humans’ living capacity exceeds that of most pets.

In spite of ever changing attitudes and ongoing transformations in our present day society, grief over the loss of a pet is still largely misunderstood. It may at times be seen as “not legitimate” or “serious enough” of a loss. In fact, it tends to be discouraged, often looked upon as “inappropriate,” “bizarre,” or even “ridiculous.” Frequently, statements such as “it’s just a pet,” or “you’ll just get another one” can be heard from those who have not experienced the joy and uniqueness of the human-animal bond and therefore are not able to offer a sympathetic ear.

‘In today’s world many consider their pets to be family members. Numerous owners refer to their pets as their “children,” and to themselves as “mommy” or “daddy.” Canadians spend billions in pet supplies and goods. Yet, very scarce are the resources to which one can turn when in pain over a beloved pet that is no longer in their lives.

Bereavement over the loss of a pet should not be taken lightly. For many, it signifies and re-opens older wounds of losses that have not yet been fully mourned. Many pet owners tend to minimize or even deny their true feelings of grief and bereavement, and often feel forced to mask their sorrow and “move on” prematurely with their lives while never given the opportunity to properly grieve and achieve closure for their loss. Some might also develop risk for Clinical Depression and Complicated Bereavement if left unattended. Especially vulnerable are the elderly, single people, childless people, or people for which their pet served as their only mean of a close relationship and providers of unconditional acceptance.

Although it is difficult to predict a fixed time for a “typical” grieving process, it has been observed that such process is said to last from few short days to a few months, largely dependant on the circumstances, cultural and personal differences. Some suggested stages of grief over the loss of a pet, may involve the following (Based partially on a theory of bereavement by Dr. Elizabeth Kobler-Ross, 1969):

Shock and disbelief: This stage is said to be normal and temporary, and usually lasts from a few hours to a few days. Here is when awareness over the loss of the beloved pet has not yet emerged, and it is still very difficult to acknowledge the irreversibility of the loss. Statements such as “I can’t believe he is really gone” typically heard in this stage.

Denial / distancing: This stage serves as a primal and protective defense mechanism against the pain of loss. Yet, denial also suggests some degree of acknowledgment (however resisted) regarding the permanency of the loss, and a strong wish for a “magical” reunion with the loved companion. Support in this stage is crucial for the grieving person.

Anger: Anger is a normal and expected reaction to overwhelmingly frustrating and distressing situations. It is also an expression of a profound sense of helplessness and immobility, mainly when we feel others are responsible for our loss, or “have not done enough” to save our pet. Anger is often directed at veterinary staff, unsympathetic others, ourselves, and even at the lost pet itself for abandoning us. Educating pet owners and helping them learn to recognize the nature of their anger is often found helpful.

Guilt / Depression: It is quite common for people who have lost their pet to feel guilty. This is mostly true when a decision to euthanize was made often out of necessity. Guilt could also be seen as an expression of negative self-evaluation, or a sense of failure and obligation toward the innocent and trusting animal. Some owners find themselves caught in an exhausting cycle of “what-if” and ruminations. At this stage, depressed feelings are also experienced and in some cases, professional help is recommended in order to assist the person through this difficult phase.

Acceptance and resolution: Accepting the loss of a pet comes as a recognition that the beloved animal will not return. Depending on religious and spiritual beliefs, one may find comfort in the conviction that he or she will one day reunite with their loved ones. Learning to accept and move on requires the process of turning a sense of anger and guilt into forgiveness and closure. A fresh perspective is adopted, and the person begins to re-experience joy and pleasure in life, often through adopting a new pet into his or her life.

SOME SUGGESTED TOOLS FOR COPING

In trying to cope with the loss, it is often helpful to find meaning, or purpose not only in the death itself, but also in what role did the pet play in our lives? What did we learn and how did we change as a result of sharing the unique relationship with our pet? Giving meaning to lost lives aids in transforming feelings of finality and permanency into a more spiritually significant relationship with the lost pet.

Noticing changes to routine, such as at feeding, walking, playing time, can be the most difficult reminder of the loss. Paying extra attention and effort to maintaining these special times while being active, or taking time to create a symbolic closure might be helpful, such as designing a special memory album, drawing, writing to or about the pet, creating a ‘memory box’ with items belonged to your pet, or engaging in any other creative expression. Joining a support group, or when needed, talking to a qualified counsellor is also an option when things are overwhelming.

Some pet owners are driven to dedicate their time or finance to animal rescue shelters or other non-profit causes, in the name of their pet, and usually find tremendous comfort and healing through such involvement. Other owners might just find themselves celebrating with a new companion animal once their grieving process has altered into a more bearable stages, and are excited to re establish their special bond with a new relationship full of tail-wagging joy and the inevitable sorrow that life brings upon.

To register for free, and post your thoughts on the Pet Loss Bereavement support E-group, visit http://groups.msn.com/MorethanJustAPetCopingwithyourloss (a more descriptive web site is currently under construction)


Shiri R. Joshua is a psychotherapist in private practice in Thornhill and in Brampton. She now offers support groups and individual counselling to grieving pet owners. For more information, or to find out about the next group cycle in your area, please contact:

Shiri R. Joshua, M.A., OACCPP
Director, Mental Health Resources Canada
www.MHRC.ca
mental_health@canada.com
Tel. (416) 571-1175




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