If you have ever had the privilege of welcoming an animal into your home, you understand how they quickly become a member of your family. The love hormone oxytocin, which plays a role in the bonding between a mother and child, has been proven to exist between humans and their animals. This bond is strong and is experienced unconditionally.
This is why loss (death, ran-away, stolen, sold, or given away by someone else) of a family pet can be so devastating. For many, grieving over a family animal can be as crippling as the death of a human. How do we move forward in our own lives, or support others, after such a loss?
While misinformation and lack of support abound when mourning the loss of a human, resources are even less for those who are grieving an animal. We often feel emotionally alone with the loss of an animal companion, without an effective way to process our emotions.
The relationship between a human and their animal can sometimes be more fulfilling than interactions with other humans. For many, the animal has been their confident, companion, or a source of comfort. Not only do we mourn the loss of our animal but we may experience the conflicting emotions brought about by a change in something familiar: cats eat at a very specific time, dogs need to be walked, etc. For quite some time, after the loss of my dog, I continued to walk into the house shouting hello to suddenly realize she was no longer there to greet me.
There are no bereavement days allotted for the loss of an animal. Grievers are expected to return to work, attending outings, and calendar events without time to mourn their loss. Society fails to appreciate the loss of the consistency, security, and stability the animal provided. For many, their animal has supported them through several career changes, moves, graduations, and romantic breakups.
There is also the fateful day, when a painful decision may need to be made about ending the life of our animal…a companion which has meant so much to us. We are not in the habit of choosing the fate of another and this decision can present another layer of emotions. We may find ourselves having feelings of abandonment, guilt, regret, indecisiveness, etc. There can be thoughts of whether we could have done more for them, or question whether we tried hard enough.
If our support people have not personally experienced a similar bond, between human and animal, they may fail to recognize, or respect, the depth of our loss. In an unwelcome attempt to comfort us they may suggest we replace our loss or be quick to offer platitudes such as: “It was just a dog.” Or “You need to get over this.”
How can you support others?
- be careful of your words
- listen and be non-judgemental, honouring the person’s feelings
- avoid telling them you know how they feel or sharing your own story of loosing a pet
- do not suggest they get another animal
- use this as an opportunity, even if you do not understand the loss, to witness and validate the pain this person is feeling
- acknowledge the strength of their bond, understanding their relationship was complex and personal
- encourage them to share stories about their animal
- do not avoid them because you feel uncomfortable or tell them you don’t know how to support them; ask them how you can be helpful
How do you support yourself?
- understand what you are feeling is normal and natural
- know there are no set stages you are expected to pass through: your loss will be dictated by the depth of your feelings and the personal relationship you had with your animal
- label your feelings: saying them aloud takes away some of their power
- be honest with how you are feeling: do not down play the emotions you are feeling in order to feel accepted by your family and friends
- find a trusted confident: it is important to say these words aloud to another living person and therefore imperative you locate someone who will listen to you with dignity and respect, without judgement
- if you are finding it difficult to identify and process your emotions reach out to a Grief Recovery Method Specialist: GRMS are trained to support you through the grief of your animal in a way which will allow you to move forward once again
- burying our feelings does not make the pain go away, it only delays our need to take the correct steps for mending our heart
- create a memory book or a photo collage
- invite your closest friends/family to share stories and remember the life of your animal: a celebration of their life
If you have lost an animal, and your heart feels as if it is broken, know there is nothing wrong with you. You are grieving. Do not be afraid to reach out for support. Those who work with grief are able to teach you the small and correct action steps to identify and process your pain.
Tammy Adams is a Certified Grief Recovery Method Specialist supporting individuals Canada-wide in person or via the Internet. To learn more about The Grief Recovery Method please visit www.tadams.ca or contact Tammy for a free consultation.