By Sophia Yin, DVM, MS
To some people, the death of a pet or even the decision to euthanize seems just another complication of day-to-day life. To others, the loss of an animal companion can lead to overwhelming grief.
Says Betty Carmack, author of Grieving the Death of a Pet, “People often say they grieved more for their animal’s death than they did for a spouse, parent, child, or sibling, and they seem a bit surprised by that. But when they say it in a support-group situation, other people are nodding their heads in understanding.”
“Our relationship with animals is sometimes very different from our relationships with people. People talk about how their relationship with their animal companion is more pure. They don’t have the conditions that relationships with people do. There’s a lot of baggage that’s connected with relationships with people that we don’t have in our relationships with animals. ”
That means that even when we’ve just lost a game-winning point or put the office copier out of commission for the day, or made an epic fashion faux pas, kitty still wants to curl up in our lap and Sneakers the rat still wants to sit on our shoulder. And even when we forget the morning walk and then come home late from work, Rover still greets us with a wag.
Our pets offer a kind of stability that’s hard to find among our human friends. Consequently, a loss can send someone into a deep depression characterized by loss of sleep, loss of appetite, and trouble focusing on daily tasks. Other factors can make the loss worse.
“In society, grief for an animal, especially at work, is minimized,” Carmack says. “You don’t get bereavement leave and people don’t know how to behave, so often they don’t do anything, which makes the person feel even more isolated.”
Those who do care frequently ask insensitive questions such as, “It was only a dog or cat. When are you going to get another,” as if the animal could be replaced. Instead, friends should acknowledge the significance of the loss, even for small or short-lived species, Carmack says, because it’s not how long you’ve had an animal or how much you paid for it. It’s what that animal meant in the person’s life.
A sympathy card, a visit, or flowers will show you care. Friends also can help in other simple ways. “When people are going through grief they don’t feel like doing things such as preparing meals or cleaning the house,” Carmack says. She suggests friends offer to bring dinner over or run to the grocery store or baby-sit the kids. They can even offer to help the griever memorialize the pet. Planting a tree or flower, making a collage, making a monetary donation to animal organizations in the pet’s memory, sending out notices of the pet’s death and what it meant. Such tributes help make the loss real and give an opportunity to honor the animal and the relationship with the owner.
Perhaps the most important help a friend can offer is to invite the pet owner to talk about the pet. In support groups, such as the one that Carmack leads at the San Francisco SPCA, people have a chance to talk about the loss of their loved animal companions and they find that their feelings and their experiences are validated. Such groups can also benefit those trying to make a euthanasia decision.
How do you know when a grieving friend needs more than you can offer? “After the death of a pet, some part will irrevocably change, while others will get back to normal,” Carmack says. So if the person isn’t able to work or continues to be hopeless or talks about wanting to join the animal, help the person seek resources such as a doctor, priest, or counselor. Most importantly, remember, people grieve at their own rate and in their own way. Be patient and respect the loss.
For a list of pet loss support groups and pet loss support hot lines, visit the Delta Society or the San Francisco SPCA.
Suggested reading: “Grieving the Death of a Pet” by Betty Carmack, Augsburg Books