When it comes to someone experiencing grief, it is often assumed that the grief is from the death of a loved one or close companion. Grief over other life losses, such as relationship issues, financial struggles, etc., usually gets brushed aside and not thought of as legitimate grief events. As I have stated before, all major changes in life cause a grief reaction; therefore, they should not be overlooked. But one loss that causes an enormous amount of grief and is often brushed aside, or even belittled, is the death of a beloved family pet. In reality, the death of a pet can induce a grief response that is as severe as that from the death of a loved one or close companion.
In many instances, pets are seen as closer companions than their human counterparts. Pets love their owners unconditionally. Pets don’t argue. Pets don’t judge. Pets don’t criticize. Pets don’t complain. Yes, they may occasionally have an accident in the floor that causes us to scold them; but, true to the nature of a pet, they always forgive. Pets often don’t have the negative aspects of relationships with humans that many humans have with each other.
Pets are considered family members in many homes. They may share furniture. They may weigh 50 pounds and think your lap is the softest place they could ever curl up; and, quite often, we let them. I have heard people refer to their pets as their children, and I have even seen someone pushing their pet around in a stroller. In instances where a loved one has died, I have seen pets experience grief over their human’s passing, and I have seen pets provide much needed support for the person(s) left behind.
While I do not claim to be an animal expert I am going to throw around some hypotheticals that are merely insights or opinions from me in relation to dogs. “Why dogs?” you may ask. I chose dogs because they seem to be an animal that is really in touch with their human owners.
Dogs supposedly age seven years for every human year they live. This means that if a dog lives for 15 years, their converted human age is 105. Imagine getting a dog as a puppy and raising it from your teens to your mid to late 20’s. You have shared only a portion of your life with that animal but that animal has lived their whole life with you. To bring this into perspective, imagine bringing home a baby from the hospital and within two years it goes from infant to teenager. A couple of more years and it is almost thirty. A couple of more and it is facing its own mid-life crisis while you have barely aged at all. This accelerated aging adds a new twist to the relationship and the examination of the bonds dogs make with their owners.
The death of an animal is often the first memorable loss many people experience, and it is often wrought with complications and challenges. Parents often hide the truth behind the death of a child’s favorite pet as a way of protecting them from the pain. Especially if the animal has to be “put to sleep” because of illness or simple old age. In reality, adults should be using these early exposures to death as a teaching tool so that children can grow up as healthy grievers. Let the children express their emotions. Validate their emotions letting them know that it is okay to cry, it is okay to be sad, and it is okay to be angry or upset. Talk openly with them about death and let them share stories of their pet. Teach them that death is an inevitable aspect of life and begin preparing them for the future when they will experience the challenge of a loved one’s death. I am not saying to scare them to death. Instead, meet them on their level of understanding while you can hold their hand and support them through it.
Animals have a way of wrapping themselves around our hearts and, like a Band-Aid on arm hair, the sudden removal of them from our lives is wrought with some aspect of pain and grief. It is important that we are allowed to grieve the loss of our pets in much the same way we grieve the loss of a loved one: talk about them, remember them, experience the emotions brought about by their sudden absence in your life, and honestly reflect on their meaning to you as a close companion.
If you find yourself struggling with grief brought about by any of life’s major changes or challenges and would like more information about what our grief programs can offer you, please call 770-786-7062 and ask for someone from our Grief Support Team.