When Doug was younger, his amateur soccer team had just lost its playoff game. Needing a pick-me-up, he made the choice to stop by his local animal shelter – puppies had always brought a smile to his face. Naturally, he wasn’t at all looking to adopt, but at the time, five-month-old Delia managed to change his mind.
“I had her for 17 years,” Doug said tearfully during a psychotherapy session. “I knew it would be rough when she died, but I had no idea… I was a total wreck. I cried for days. I couldn’t get any work done. And worst of all, I was too embarrassed about it to tell anyone. I spent days at work crying in private and muttering ‘allergies’ whenever someone glanced at my puffy eyes.”
As pet owners, I’m sure we can all relate to Doug’s pain. Losing a beloved pet is always emotionally devastating, yet society doesn’t always recognize just how impactful the loss can be to our emotional and physical health. Following a loss of a pet, symptoms of acute grief can last anywhere from one to two months, and on average, grief can persist for a full year.
Back in 2017, “The New England Journal of Medicine” reported that after suffering the loss of her dog, a woman experienced what is known as “broken heart syndrome,” which is a condition where the grief response is so severe that the symptoms a person experiences mimic those of a heart attack – these include hormone levels that can be elevated up to 30 times greater than normal.
While the grief we experience for a beloved pet that passed away can be just as intense or even last as long as when we experience the loss of a significant person in our life, our mourning process is actually quite different. When a pet passes away, many of the societal mechanisms of social and communal support aren’t there.
For example, it is very rare for someone who’s lost a pet to ask their employer for time off to grieve because there is a fear that if we were to do so, we’d be viewed as over-sensitive, immature, or emotionally weak. I found this to be very true when I lost my cat Tibby. Thankfully, my boss knew the heartbreak of losing a pet as she’d lost her dog two years earlier, and she told me to take two days off. Had she not caught me crying in my cubicle during lunch, I wouldn’t have dared to ask for time off because I didn’t want to be thought of as childish in a work environment. Studies show that social support is very critical to recovering from all kinds of grief. So, now only are we being robbed of valuable support when our pets pass away, but we’re adding an extra layer of stress to ourselves with our own perceived emotional responses. Often times we ourselves feel embarrassed or even ashamed at how much heartbreak we’re feeling, that we hesitate to disclose our feelings to those around us, including our loved ones. That additional layer of shame then complicates our recovery process because it makes it longer and more complex than it needs to be.
Not only does losing a pet create a significant void in our lives, it also leaves ripple effects of grief that extend beyond the loss of our animal. The loss of a pet can also create changes to our daily routines that can be just as distressing. Caring for pets helps us create responsibilities and a schedule around which we plan our days. For example, with a dog we’ll often go out and exercise or socialize with other dog owners at the local park. With our precious felines we’ll often find ourselves waking up early in order to feed them, thus getting more done in the day because of it. And those are habits that we’ll often have for years. Losing a pet disrupts these routines, thus adding some more grief to the mix.
Not only do we lose some of our routines when we lose a pet, we also lose a source of emotional comfort. All animals, whether they’re cats, dogs, rabbits, horses, birds, etc. do provide us with companionship. And that companionship helps to reduce loneliness and depression, as well as ease anxiety. As much as we like to think we take care of them, our pets actually do take care of us too. Not only do our pets help to support our emotional well-being, they also impart a sense of meaning to our actions. That is why – besides the emotional pain – we feel so aimless, useless, and lost in the days, weeks, or months after the loss of our pet.
In order for us to properly recover from the loss of a pet, we have to recognize these changes and find ways of dealing with them. That means we need to seek social support from people we know will understand and sympathize with our feelings, rather than judge them. There are many animal clinics who offer bereavement groups for pet owners who’ve experienced a loss.
It is also important to reorganize our routines and daily activities in order not to lose the secondary benefits that came with having a pet. For example, if your exercise came from walking your dog, then it’s important to find an exercise alternative in order to keep reaching daily step goals. If Saturday mornings were spent socializing in the park with other pet owners, then you should look at other outlets for outdoor socialization.
But most importantly, it’s time to recognize, as a whole society, that grieving pet owners need support and consideration. While it is up to us to identify or address our emotional pain after a pet passes away, it’s also important for other to give us the validation that our pain requires. Psychologically, that is the quickest way to heal. So if you know someone who has lost a pet be gentle with them and acknowledge that they’re legitimately in pain. And if you’re a pet owner who’s experiencing a loss, know that it’s ok to be sad, and I’m sending you all the positive vibes.