Saying Goodbye to Spot: Pet Loss Bereavement
Furry or feathered, a pet's death must be respected with the same reverence as the loss of a beloved family member.
Jennie couldn’t sleep, lost her appetite, and was overcome by waves of grief that caused her to burst into tears at work and in public places. She exhibited the classic symptoms of grief for a loved one. In addition to feeling guilty, she was consumed with anger. But Jennie wasn’t grieving the loss of her spouse or a close family member; she was grieving for her pet Schnauzer, Jezabel.
In the wake of the tainted pet food incident, thousands are suffering from the loss of their pets. What compounds the grief for many is that they are grieving alone, feel silly for being so upset, and are burdened by the belief that they may have caused their pet’s death.
Silly or Not?
The idea that humans and animals bond with one another is as familiar as the childhood stories of Lassie, Toto, and Black Beauty. The main characters of our grade school readers were Dick, Jane, and Spot. We have loved, been amused, and been charmed by Snoopy and Garfield. And recently, the escapades of the beloved yellow Labrador, Marley, captivated us in the New York Times bestseller.
But even though we have been socialized to understand the human-animal bond, we still fail to fully grasp how intense it is. Linda Peterson, ACSW, a Pennsylvania social worker who has been involved in pet loss counseling since 1989, says, “Our society doesn’t sanction deep, extended grief for a pet. I see quite a few people, even people in their 30s and 40s, who have not been through the loss of anyone close to them—human or animal. When they get hit with these tremendously overwhelming feelings [over the death of a pet], they feel ashamed. They just aren’t prepared for the depth of their feelings.”
Cohen agrees. ”When I first started doing this work, 50% of my job was telling people, ‘No, you are not crazy.’ Now, 25 years later, many more people are aware of this relationship, how important it is, and that people are very sad when their pet dies. They understand that they are not weird.”
Unconditional, Positive Regard
For some people, their relationship with their pet may have been their only experience of unconditional, positive regard, says Linda L. Lawrence, MSW, LMSW, a social worker at Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine. “Our pets are always happy to see us and run to greet us at the door. They don’t hold grudges against us. They are always there. That is meaningful to everybody but especially to someone whose pet plays a central role in their life—a latchkey child, for example.”
But pets play more than a just psychological role in people’s lives. “The simple act of petting an animal has been shown to lower blood pressure by inducing an instant relaxation response,” says Alan Beck, ScD, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at the Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine in Indiana. “And animal owners have a higher one-year survival rate following a heart attack and lower cholesterol levels than those without pets—even when they have the same levels of exercise.” It turns out that pets are good for both people’s heads and hearts. When people lose them, they suffer not just a psychological stress but a physiological one, too.
Pets Are Family
Cohen agrees. “We think of them as members of our family, sort of like children but even better than children because they are more innocent.” The impact of losing a pet—considered a member of a family, like an innocent child—because it was fed tainted food is immense. “These are people who fed their pet food that caused their innocent animal to die—that is very, very difficult for people,” she says.
Guilt and anger when losing a loved one are typical reactions, but in the pet food incident, they may be severe. “As is often the case when there is some kind of accident, you really are not culpable, but at the same time, you feel culpable,” says Beck. “I think the recall is probably that way. People are probably thinking to themselves, ‘I really should have read those labels. I should have switched foods. I should have been more observant.’ I think most people were caught by surprise. I suspect that it was spotted pretty quickly, but that doesn’t stop the guilt.” Cohen adds, “Because we see pets as very innocent and very dependent on us, we feel extra responsible.”
There is a difference between a loss that is anticipatory and one that is traumatic, suggests Beck. “One of the problems with the food issue is that people didn’t have time to mobilize their feelings and start the mourning process in a healthy way. Whereas, if you know that your animal is going to die in a few weeks, then you spend some extra special time together. It makes it a little easier,” he says.
How Long Will the Grief Last?
The fact that it can take a long time “is where people get hung up,” says Peterson. “They say, ‘I have been upset for a couple of days or a week or two weeks, and I have to get beyond this. It is going on too long.’ I tell them that it is an individual thing. The more you loved your pet, the longer it is going to take to get through these feelings.”
Cohen says the duration of the grief often depends on what else is going on in the person’s life at the same time. This has also been Lawrence’s experience: “If you are going through multiple stresses at the same time, if you are going through a divorce, or recently lost your job, or have a family member who is ill and you have a pet die, that is going to compound the amount of time that the grief will last.”
Sometimes, the pet is the last link to a lost relationship. “I have had people who have lost a pet that was left to them by their children or that was part of their life before their spouse died. It is the last living connection to that child or spouse, and so their grief and their sadness and depression is huge,” explains Lawrence.
It may be especially painful for older people to lose a pet. For some, their pet is a cherished companion that has given them a reason to keep living. At a time when they are experiencing the death of friends, losing their pet could also be catastrophic. Because their pet may have been the sole focus of their attention and affection and may have been a substantial part of their daily routine, the loss they feel may be especially intense.
Beck suggests that most people recover from a pet loss sooner than a human loss. One reason may be that the major changes in one’s life that often accompany a human loss don’t occur when you lose an animal. “Things like your economy and where you live may change when you lose a spouse, for example, but aren’t a factor when you lose your pet. There are some studies that show that how long you have had the animal has some influence on the duration and the impact of the loss,” says Beck.
What About a New Pet?
Beck says the suggestion that you should “just get another pet” is as inappropriate as saying, “I heard you lost your husband. By the way, I have a brother who is just right for you.” Beck has found that it takes people roughly two years before they replace their pet. However, some people want to do it right away. Some people want to replace their pet with the same breed all the time. Some want to maintain the original memory of their pet and switch breeds to avoid competition. According to Beck, both responses are common, but the loyalty to one breed is more common.
Peterson doesn’t encourage people to run right out and get another pet primarily because it takes a lot of energy to bring a new pet into the home at a time when energy is drained from grieving. The new pet is not going to be like the other pet; people are still remembering the pet that died and comparing the two, and in Peterson’s experience, that doesn’t work. Too often, people who have adopted a new pet too soon end up returning the pet or not being able to keep it, which is an added guilt factor. “That is another trauma, and you don’t want to set yourself up for that,” she says.
Supporting a Pet Owner in Loss
“Most people who are grieving from the loss of a pet improve when someone is able to listen to them and not think that they are crazy,” says Cohen. Pet loss support groups have proved enormously helpful for many, especially for those who don’t have someone with whom to share the loss (see sidebar).
Considering the depth of feeling that people experience when they lose their pets and the numbers of pets that have been lost to the pet food incident, the impact of this crisis is devastating. Jennie and the others who are grieving for their pets will, for the most part, get better. Lawrence gives important advice: “Anyone suffering from the loss of their pet should be treated as though it was a human being that was lost, and they should be provided the same grief and loss services that you would to a person who lost their spouse, or child, or another family member.”
— Lynn K. Jones, DSW, is a freelance writer and an executive coach and organizational consultant in Santa Barbara, CA. As a specialist in organizational culture, she supports leaders and organizations in developing mission-driven cultures.
Pet Loss Support Groups
Pet loss support groups have proved a comforting place to share feelings such as confusion, sadness, and guilt with others in a compassionate environment. Cohen says that one way pet loss support groups are helpful is that people grieving a pet’s death hear how others are handling the process.
“They are often told by their friends and family that they did everything they could for their pet and they tend to discount it. ‘They are just saying that to me to make me feel better.’ But when they hear someone in their group say those things, they can see that they are beating themselves up unnecessarily and then they can say to themselves, ‘Wow, I think that guy did everything and look how hard he is being on himself. Maybe I am being too hard on myself.’ You can’t tell them that, but they can see it in someone else. And they can let themselves off the hook,” Cohen explains.
Pet Loss Resources
Companion Animal Association of Arizona, Inc.
The Delta Society
St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center