This blog post was written by Jennifer Weidner, MSW, LCSW, a Behavioral Health Therapist at the Beloit Area Community Health Center.
Saying goodbye is always difficult
Most of society defines grief as what we experience after the death of a loved one. We honor our dead by conducting funerals, rituals, memorials, wakes, and other ceremonies to allow us to receive support from others who attend these ceremonies.
These ceremonies help us to say goodbye to loved ones and grieve openly (including crying in public). Society expects us to support those who have lost a loved one.
A pet provides unconditional love to its owners, something which most of us never get a chance to experience. However, if you own a pet, you understand the special love and companionship they provide.
Since pets are living longer these days, up to 25 years or so in cats and small dogs, up to 15 years in larger dogs, they become an integral part of the family.
Losing a pet causes similar grief as losing a human family member
Many pet owners experience severe grief when they lose a beloved pet. Loss of a pet can be traumatic, and many people are very surprised at the intensity of their grief.
If you have never been a pet owner, it is difficult for you to understand the level of pain that pet owners feel when they lose a pet. If the pet was ill, and had to be euthanized, the loss can feel more intense, as many pet owners will question their decision to let their pet go-was it too soon? Or not soon enough?
Yet as painful as it is to lose a pet, the grieving pet owner will try to hide their grief. Why? Because to society, particularly in the United States, mourning over your pet is considered “silly”.
Grieving pet owners are called, “too sensitive”, “emotional”, or a “wimp” and all its’ synonyms. Society tends to bully and harass them into not showing their grief, and many lack the support that they need during the grief process.
“It’s just an animal”
“It’s only a dog”.
“You can always get another one.”
The last comment can really hurt, as dog, cats, and other pets each have their own personality, and you cannot just “replace” them like you would a light bulb in a socket.
Feelings of grief after losing a pet are normal
There is a name for this type of grief. It is called “disenfranchised grief”. The term “disenfranchised” means to deprive someone of a right or a privilege.
We experience this type of grief when the loss is not acceptable to society as something that can be grieved over. Pet loss is included in this classification. Other type of losses that come under scrutiny by society are losing a job or losing a home.
If you know someone who has lost a pet, let them know that it is normal to grieve a pet as you would a person. Allow the pet owner to open up about their feelings and let them know that you will be there to listen.
Each of us views loss differently and uniquely, and our definition of a loss might not be the same as someone else. When someone you know is grieving a loss they have experienced, validate, support, and empathize with them. Your support will be very appreciated.