Grief and the Role of Pets in Our Lives

Jennifer MitchellPsychotherapy

A few weeks ago, I was honoured to be part of pet loss ceremony. It was a touching and beautiful occasion that brought together therapists, animal rescue workers and pet owners.

Personally, I fall into all three categories. I came to the world of rescue when I adopted my first dog 9 years ago. Since then, I’ve been involved in rescue organizations in a variety of roles.  Work in rescue has only solidified what I know as a human who loves animals, but also what I have learned as a researcher and a psychologist. Each role I have held has deepened my understanding of the profound effects’ animals can have on our mental and physical health.  Pets can decrease anxiety in children and adults. Pets can increase our physical health by encouraging us to get out enjoy a walk. Pets can be a source of social support, lessen isolation and loneliness. Pets teach us patience, empathy and responsibility.

There is something unique about the human-animal bond. Our pets enter our lives and may be part of our lives for years. Through those years our pets remain 100% dependent on us.  We become their entire world and likewise our everyday routines become intertwined with taking care of and loving them. And it goes without saying their love for us is unconditional.

Loss can be about death – some pets pass suddenly, or get sick, and we may or may not be faced with the decisions of illness management and finding the right time to say goodbye. But there may be other losses as well.  For example, we can lose pets to unforeseen circumstances such as being stolen or lost. We may get sick ourselves and be unable to care for the animal anymore. Elderly people may be forced to give up pets if they have to move to housing that doesn’t allow pets.

Despite all we know about the animal-human bond, why does their loss not sometimes get acknowledged in the same ways?

In psychology, we have a term disenfranchised grief. This is a label given to some losses that may not be given the same acknowledgement by society as other types of grief. For example, I’ve talked with people who expressed they couldn’t openly express their grief because they’ve heard statements such as: “it’ only an animal.” These comments can silence people from talking more openly about their loss.  My personal hope that we start to lose the term disenfranchised and move towards all losses simply being validated.

In terms of the grief process, there is a myth that we must be done grieving in a certain amount of time and that is just not the case.

Our loss is not something we forget, nor is it a problem to be fixed. It’s something we learn to carry. It becomes a piece of what we carry about the wonderful pet who meant something to us.

I often get asked about the right way to grieve and how to cope.

There is no step by step process and no one way.

Some people may want to get another pet right away and others may not. Others may seek out volunteering or opportunities to be around animals or may foster. People may find comfort in writing about their pet, crying, laughing, talking, journaling, drawing, exercise, yoga or grief rituals. It is about what feels right to each person.

A powerful thing we can do is connect with others, such as the ceremony I attended. We can hold space for each other; hold space for the emotion, hold space for the memory and hopefully find a little bit of healing, comfort and connection in each other.

There is something significant about being just allowed to feel, not justify, not explain, not defend the validity of the loss.

For anyone struggling with the loss of pet, know that there are others who understand.