THE VALIDATION OF LOSS AFTER THE DEATH OF A PET

 

 

2013-10-13 00.56.10

Stan

 

I wrote the following as part of a B.Sc. Thesis in 2010 on the validation of pet loss.  That paper was directed towards helping professionals asking them to consider the impact of pet loss on their clients and how through pet loss other past losses can surface (partners, family, friends, other pets and other losses).  It examined the human-animal bond, our attachments and why we form bonds and in the case of our animal companions, just how much they mean to us.  Most of that paper is not included here and this extract has been edited for the purpose of this piece. What I would hope is that anyone who reads this will examine their own thoughts around the concept of validating a person’s feelings when they lose a pet. We often listen to someone and acknowledge that they miss their pet, but I hope that this might encourage us to actually ask someone what their pet meant to them and that we might with empathy and understanding listen to what they say.   There are times when people aren’t as attached to a pet and won’t feel grief – they may feel sad but are okay. Sometimes a person may not have been attached at all and don’t feel anything for the animal. Everyone is different but this piece focuses on those of us whose pets mean a lot to and have meant a lot to.

Over the years I have lost pets. I always grieved for them and really missed them. I often felt guilty and distraught and as I said goodbye to them felt as if my whole world was turned upside down. I cried and spoke to family and friends about the loss. However, despite peoples best intentions, I often felt like no one really understood how I was feeling. Or more to the point, I felt foolish or felt that they really didn’t want to hear me speak about my pet AGAIN. I missed them and longed for them to be back with me and I also missed the habits of looking after them and caring for them. I also experienced on occasions the very difficult and harrowing decision to put a much loved pet to sleep. Having a very supportive and understanding vet was a great help with all of those decisions.

I remember my dog Sparky who disappeared one day when he was about 18 years old, the dog I’d had from childhood and how I walked the streets and fields looking for him. He never wandered and used to stay in the garden so it was really unusual that he should just disappear. I remember Freddie the budgie dying in my hands; Heidi and Blackie, two affectionate and lovely dogs who had to be put to sleep. My cat Ollie, a brother of Stan’s, aged 13, who got knocked down by a car. Prince a very lively and affectionate Border Collie who was also put to sleep.  There are other dogs, cats, budgies, and birds etc. that have been in my life (owned by other family members and friends) over the years too.

It is okay and very normal to grieve for a beloved pet. It is only natural that we do. Our feelings are real. There are times when our vet can be a great support to us, when family and friends can be too. Most people move through their grieving for a pet at their own pace, in their own way, but do come through and don’t always need the help of a counsellor. For some people, they feel they need some professional support to speak about their current loss and or other losses (human and animal) from the past. – Mary

 

The loss of a pet is a real and legitimate human experience and deserves and warrants greater recognition, validation and compassionate understanding for the importance of pets in the lives of pet owners. Loss, whether it be the loss of a human being or that of a pet involves many of the same emotions and a common grieving process. Pet loss in many ways leads to a disenfranchised grief with very little support or recognition for the pet owner available for a loss that is real and painful.

Loss is one of the most profound human experiences. The death of a close relative or friend is recognised as being amongst the most painful experiences we can endure. Consequently, people are justifiably afforded all kinds of support as they work through their grief. Pet loss can also bring pain and grief to a person, yet support for, and understanding of, is often sadly lacking. Baydak (2000, p. 12) states that for some people their grief at the loss of a pet can be “as profound as if they had lost a human family member”.

Weisman (1991, p.245) points out that the “loss of a companion animal after many years of mutual devotion is an unqualified occasion for bereavement.”

Kellehear and Fook (1996-1997, p. 191) tell us that: “While friends, family and co-workers may trivialise the grief experienced over the loss of a family pet, such a death can elicit the same range of emotions experienced in grief related to the death of a person.”   Philips (1990, p.4) agrees when he says: “There’s a lot of difficulty with pet grief in our society. It doesn’t support pet loss as it does human loss.” Because of this, pet owners may fear being misunderstood or be too embarrassed to openly admit that they are grieving for their pet.

The attachment between the owner and the pet qualifies the feelings of loss and therefore mourning for the pet is a very real, normal, human reaction to such loss. Where an attachment develops, separation creates a sense of loss for the owner that is as valid as any other loss. Quackenbush & Glickman (1984, p.42-48) say that the behaviour of bereaved pet owners closely mimics the stages of grief that have been described as characteristics of bereavement at human death. Therefore bereavement following the loss of a pet is as real as bereavement following the loss of a person. The stronger the bond between the owner and their pet, the deeper the sense of grief is likely to be when the loss occurs. People often confuse pet loss being the same as human loss and for some people it can be. However, it is the bond, the attachment and the feelings of loss that need to be better understood and validated.

Animal companions or pets play an important role in our lives with many Irish households owning one or more pets. Consolidated statistical sources of pet ownership in Ireland are difficult to come by. An obvious statistical source is the amount of dog licences issued annually. Official statistics show that some 200,000 dog licences per year have been issued in Ireland in recent times. The amount of dog licences issued in 2014 was 191,306. (Department of the Environment, 2015).

Relationships and History

Pet bonding is by no means just a feature of modern living. According to Taboada and Brackenbridge (1994), as cited in Toray (2001, p.1), the human-animal bond is a phenomenon that has existed for centuries, going back to the ancient Egyptians. Alan Beck (1996), according to Lantz (2006, p.1) states that ancient Egyptians shaved their eyebrows after their cats died, and the Roman emperor Caligula had his horse entombed. There are also records of dogs being kept as house pets as far back as 3000 BC. Mugford (1977, p.4).

Alastair Jamieson (2010) claims that the pharaohs of ancient Egypt were buried alongside cats, monkeys and birds because they believed animals shared an afterlife with humans. He says that Anglo-Saxon nobles were usually interred with their possessions, including their horses, but that the practice fell out of favour with the rise of Christianity. Jamieson continues by saying that the 19th century saw the creation of a pet cemetery in London’s Hyde Park.

Jamieson goes on to say that this practice of humans sharing burial space with pets is becoming popular again.   He quotes a lady who runs a joint pet/human burial site as having buried 30 owners alongside their pets since she began operating the service in 2003. He also quotes a veterinary surgeon with UK animal charity PDSA, as saying: “It is something that wouldn’t have been considered 30 or 40 years ago but we are hearing of more occasions where owners want to be buried with their pet.”

Even Queen Victoria doted on her pets, judging by the memorial she had erected to her favourite spaniel Dash. According to petlossmatters.com (2005-2015, p.3), his epitaph reads: “Here lies Dash, the Favourite Spaniel of Queen Victoria by whose command this Memorial was erected. He died on the 20 December, 1840 in his 9th year. His attachment was without selfishness, His playfulness without malice, His fidelity without deceit. Reader, if you would live beloved and die regretted, profit by the example of Dash.”

In former times in Ireland, animals typically had a functional role. Horses ploughed fields or were a mode of transport and donkeys were working animals. Increasing mechanisation and prosperity has done away with the need for such work animals. Horses and donkeys are now often regarded as pets, with areas such as Ballymun, well known for having a horse programme where care and respect for the horses are encouraged and taught to local children. Coffey (2004, p.1)

Broader Cultural Context

In modern society human / animal bonding extends beyond pet ownership. Whether we do or don’t have pets, some of us donate to charitable organisations such as the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Dogs Trust, the Donkey Sanctuary etc. We give to charities such as Guide Dogs for the Blind and marvel at how dogs can be the “eyes” for their owners. People feed the birds in their gardens, ducks in the park while visiting zoos or feeding the ducks in public parks brings fun and enjoyment to many.

Nowadays, a whole week is set aside to celebrate our animal friends. World Animal Week takes place each year in October around the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals. The emphasis is on promoting animal welfare and happiness worldwide. During this week many churches hold “blessing of the animals” ceremonies, where people are encouraged to bring their pets to church. One such church, St. Maur’s in Rush, Co. Dublin (2007), on their website archive say what a great success this ceremony is for their parish. They say the ceremony is based on: “St. Francis’ ability to see God’s Holy Spirit in the whole of creation and especially in the animals, which give us so much joy.”

Advertisers are actively aware of the powerful market appeal of puppies and kittens in promoting their products e.g. the Andrex Toilet Tissue advertisement. Programmes such as Paul O’Grady’s “For the Love of Dogs”, “Springwatch” and “Animal Hospital” are very popular.

The Department of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries provide Pet Passports, once certain requirements have been met. Prior to this a person wanting to return to Ireland would have to put their pet in quarantine which could be very distressing for both pet and owner.

Another development in the United States highlights how the value attached to the life of a pet is changing. Barton Ross and Baron-Sorensen (2007, p.2), speak of the devastation pet owners suffered in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and other disasters where owners, being rescued weren’t allowed to take a beloved pet with them. This resulted in some owners refusing to evacuate, putting their own lives at risk. Others who left pets behind were consumed with guilt and pain at having made such a decision. Many of the pets died or strayed and were never seen again, compounding the sense of guilt and grief already incurred.

According to the Humane Society of the United States (2006), President George Bush, in October 2006, signed a bill to ensure that pets and service animals would no longer be left behind in disasters such as Hurricane Katrina. Wayne Pacelle (2006), president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, says: “We’re tremendously grateful to the House and Senate leaders who reacted swiftly by introducing the legislation. While Katrina wreaked so much devastation and disruption, it also highlighted the remarkable bond between this nation and our pets and service animals, and the need for public policy to echo that appreciation of animals.”

Barton Ross and Baron-Sorensen (2007, p.2), state that: “In the eyes of society, the status of pets is forever changed.” They claim that pets are now regarded as family members and as such the loss of a pet should be afforded the same respect as the loss of a human family member. Furthermore, they argue that the validation of, and support for, the loss should be extended to grieving “pet parents.” Genvolls & Labott (1994, p.173) agree and claim that may people consider their pets to be family members and when death occurs the owner’s grief can be profound.

Barton Ross and Baron-Sorensen (2007, p.15) also point out that as humans, we outlive most other creatures and therefore pet loss is something that we may experience many times in life. We can lose many pet family members as well as many human family members.

Human / Pet Bond

As humans we form emotional relationships and attachments to other humans. For a lot of people this bonding capacity also extends to animal companions (pets). According to Toray (2004, p.1), a bond with a pet involves a genuine feeling of affection and a responsibility for the well-being of the animal. Sandra Barker (1999, p.1) finds that: “Early surveys reported a strong psychological and emotional attachment between people and their pets, and the term human-animal bond emerged to represent this attachment.” Sable (1995, p.335), suggests that “some people view their pets as companions, some as best friends, and still others as surrogate children.” Lagoni et al. (1994), as cited in Turner (2001, p.2), found that most pet owners regarded companionship as the main reason for owning pets.

The film “Marley and Me” (Twentieth Century Fox, 2008), based on the autobiography of John Grogan, portrays very effectively how deep and complex the animal / human bond can be for a man, his wife and their children. This story centres on a couple, Grogan and his wife and their dog Marley. The Grogan’s acquired Marley as a puppy and they shared their life with him. The couple go on to have three children, who in turn also adore Marley. After thirteen years, Marley becomes ill and dies and the film very much portrays his loss as being a huge family loss. One of the children even refers to Marley as his brother. Grogan wrote the book a month after Marley died and a few years later this film was made. In the film (Twentieth Century Fox, 2008), Owen Wilson (playing John Grogan), recites the following which offers a compelling argument for the animal / human bond.

“A dog has no use for fancy cars, big homes, or designer clothes. A water log stick will do just fine. A dog doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, clever or dull, smart or dumb. Give him your heart and he’ll give you his. How many people can you say that about? How many people can make you feel rare and pure and special? How many people can make you feel extraordinary?” Sara Ban Breathnach (1995, p. Aug. 7) believes that: “Anyone who has ever been adored by a dog or adopted by a cat probably can’t convey in words the emotional bond that grows between them.” She goes on to say: “Dote on them (pets) and they’ll return the kind of devotion most of us can only dream about receiving from human beings.”

People in today’s world can be under extreme pressure, living in a world that is frequently judgmental and critical of them, on a professional and personal level. Pets don’t judge us and have the capacity to love us unconditionally. A pet does not care what you look like or measure you in terms of social success. A pet is just glad to have your company. Indeed, Therese Rando (1988, p.59) says of pets, that they are loyal, uncritical, non-judgemental, relatively undemanding, and usually always there. Pets are “delighted merely to give and receive affection and companionship. They can be intuitive, caring and engaging, often drawing us out of ourselves.”

Lagoni et al. (1994), as cited in Tuner (2001, p.3) state that human-animal attachment is possible because pets need to be cared for and this in turn makes owners feel needed. Mary (as cited in Troy, 2002, p.1), a social worker in St. James’s Hospital, Dublin for over 30 years, claims that people often hide the seriousness of a medical complaint, even to the point of refusing urgent hospitalisation, because they don’t want to leave their beloved pet. A counsellor and former matron (1997, p.10), of St. Luke’s Cancer Hospital also found this to be the case. Another example from this article quotes a Matron of Our Lady’s Hospice in Harold’s Cross, Dublin, as saying, leaving a pet can be very traumatic for people needing to enter a hospital. The hospice, in recognition of this dilemma and anxious to accommodate patient needs wherever possible, allow patients to receive visits from pets once or twice a week. They have even allowed cats stay in the hospice because of one patients love for her cats and had adopted a dog, to bring a lot of joy to patients.

Acceptance, loyalty and love are clearly seen as key benefits to having a pet. Moreover, Barton Ross and Baron-Sorensen (2007, p.11), relate that studies demonstrate that sharing a relationship with an animal can reduce anxiety in hospitalised patients, give hope to people with life threatening illnesses, promote self-esteem by giving purpose to inmates of correctional facilities, provide educational opportunities for children and give meaning to lives of senior citizens. They refer to other studies showing that people with mental and physical disabilities can benefit from interaction with pets. Studies also show that petting a companion animal can lower blood pressure. Friedman, Katcher, Thomas, Lynch & Messent (1983, p. 461-465).

Pet Therapy is a very effective and beneficial way for pets and people to interact and bond with each other. Irish Therapy Dogs run a very popular service visiting people in caring environments such as nursing homes, hospitals, schools and special needs schools. People in these care facilities look forward to their next visit from their special friend. Pet therapy is described as the use of companion animals to enhance the quality of life of people.

Irish Therapy Dogs (2010) quote one study of 92 patients hospitalised in coronary care units where 6% of patients who owned pets died within a year compared with 28% of those who did not own pets. They also mention other studies that have demonstrated that even watching a tank full of tropical fish may temporarily lower blood pressure.

Benefits of a Therapy Dog according to Irish Therapy Dogs (2010)

  • Aids stimulation and motivation
  • Provides focus for conversation
  • Helps combat loneliness and depression
  • Offers distraction from pain and infirmity
  • Brings companionship
  • Gives unconditional affection
  • Is a good listener and doesn’t ask any questions
  • Is non-judgemental and non-selective
  • Gives welcome change from routine
  • Can be lifeline for people who have had to give up a pet

As humans, we form attachments to possessions, to people and also to our pets. Allied to these attachments, we experience feelings of love, security, happiness and contentment. However, we are equally subject to experiencing loss and grief when an attachment is broken or endangered in some way. As Barton Ross and Baron-Sorensen say, (2007, p.17) “Anytime we choose to love someone or something and to receive love in return, we are allowing a bond to form. We may derive much pleasure and happiness from the bond, but we run the risk of feeling an equal amount of pain and sorrow when that bond is broken.”

Fromm speaks of detachment (1947, p.190) “To spare oneself from grief at all cost can be achieved only at the price of total detachment, which excludes the ability to experience happiness.” So in other words, attachment is essential to us living and surviving. Bowlby (1988, p.3), says that: “The propensity to make strong emotional bonds to particular individuals [is] a basic component of human nature.” Bowlby, according to King (2006, p.258/259) found that attachment styles are formed in early childhood by our experiences. These attachment styles influence our development and behaviour in later life and are learned from the initial infant/caregiver (mother) relationship.

(In my dissertation on this subject, I went into a lot of Bowlby’s Attachment Theory, but for the purpose of this very long blog, I have omitted it)

So, how does attachment theory apply to the case of an owner grieving for their pet? King (2006, p.258), quoting Bowlby, says that: “grief and mourning appear whenever attachment behaviours are activated.” In the case of a deceased pet, with whom a strong bond / attachment is formed the pet is no longer present; the owner becomes distressed because the pet will not be coming back adding to the yearning for it.   The owner wants to be with and hold the pet, to feel secure, loved and needed by it and in turn to take care of and love it. Thomas (1997, p.5) says that the disruption that results from feelings of loss can be broken down into four specific areas:

  • The animal as a family member. People see their pet as a family member and usually build their lives around that pet.
  • The special qualities of pets – People often say how special their pet is and how there will never be another pet like him/her.
  • Intimacy with the pet – the owner feels loved, adored and very special to the pet. Unconditional love and affection is always at hand.
  • The need to be needed.

Stern (1996), as cited in Thomas (1997, p.29) believes that the practical and emotional elements that define the relationship with the pet while it is alive, will dominate the grief reaction when the pet is lost. Thomas (1997, p. 29) determines that it is “the meaning and relationship of a particular pet for a particular individual is thus the main determinant of grief – the attachment defines the loss.”

Betty J. Carmack (2003, p. 78) sums this up when she speaks about the loss of her dog Rocky. On returning home after his death, he didn’t come to greet her as he did many, many times before and she felt the house empty without his energy and presence. She says; “Before was no more. I wandered from room to room seeking him, even though intellectually, I knew he wasn’t there.   It was a yearning, a searching and a longing, like I was a child, lost without my source of security and comfort”.

Impact of the Loss

“Then grief, the tearing open of the heart, leaves the heart vulnerable and exposed”. Levine (1986, p. 90). Bereavement is a period of mourning and grief following the death of a loved one and is deemed to be a normal response to death. Averill (1968, p. 721), defines grief as the “total response pattern, psychological and physiological, displayed by an individual following the loss of a significant object, usually a loved one”.

Grief is a person’s personal and individual experience of loss and can include physical symptoms as well as emotional ones. Tintle (2007, p.11) believes that: “mourning is different in every individual, is unique to each relationship, may vary with what is going on in the present moment, intersect with other losses, and finds its own road in its own time”. Symptoms can include: crying, disbelief, guilt, shock, headaches, anxiety, distress and numbness to name just a few. These can manifest themselves as a diversity of feelings and emotions in each individual grieving process.

As Katafiasz (1993, p.7) says: “Grieve in your own way. The pattern of your grief is unique, shaped by your particular relationship, specific circumstances, and distinctive temperament.” Lagoni et al (1996), as cited in Thomas (1997, p.28) describe how special relationships with animals can produce a deep and enduring attachment that results in a high intensity of grief when the bond is broken. According to Barton Ross and Baron-Sorensen (2007, p. 57): “There are many ways in which the bond with a pet is broken. Pets run away, are lost, stolen, go missing, are killed, die suddenly, or may be the victims of both manmade and natural disasters.

Barton Ross and Baron-Sorensen (2007, p. xv), say that people feel the loss of a pet in different ways e.g. the loss for a person with mental health problems can lead to depression and detachment from reality. The loss for an elderly person can mean loneliness and isolation and lack of stimulation. For a lot of elderly people or those living alone, the only contact they have on a daily basis may be their pet and so both owner and pet become very close. However, Aine Wellard (1997, p.10) makes the point that people often think that those worst affected by the death of a pet live alone or are elderly. She argues that most of her clients, grieving for a pet, are family women aged between thirty and forty-five. She feels that “mum” takes care of everyone else in the family, but often there is no one there to help her cope.

In 1994, John Archer and George Winchester (as cited in Beder, 2007), studied eighty-eight participants who had lost a pet, and found that 25% showed signs of depression, anger and anxiety a year after the loss. Grief was more pronounced among owners living alone, owners whose pets had died suddenly or owners who had strong attachments to their pets.

A very important point is how we define the meaning of human loss versus pet loss. It shouldn’t be about the value of a human life over the value of a pet’s life. McHenry and Kemp (2009, p.1) reveal that many people assume that pet loss shouldn’t hurt as much as human loss, because humans are supposedly more important than pets. Human life is regarded as more precious and valuable. This may be the trap people get caught up in when they think of pet loss, rather than thinking about what the pet means to the bereaved pet owner.

Bradley (2002, p. 29 / 30) named some key differences in how society views human loss as opposed to pet loss. With human loss, grief is usually recognised and validated. Rituals help bereaved people to accept the loss and they are supported and allowed to openly grieve. With pet loss, he claims that these same considerations aren’t afforded to the pet owner. Owners may question the legitimacy of their feelings and emotions and may possibly feel embarrassed, alone and ridiculed. Baydak (2000 p. 16) concurs and says that: “Unlike the death of a human, there are no socially sanctioned traditions or rituals which bring family and friends together to support the grieving pet owner in the expression and resolution of their grief.” Pet owners often experience what Doka (1989, p.4) refers to as disenfranchised grief: “The grief that a person experiences when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned or socially supported.” Doka (1989, p.4) explains that there are three ways this grief can be experienced and this grief is especially true of pet loss.

  • The relationship with the deceased is not recognised
  • The loss is not recognised
  • The griever is not recognised.

Research shows, according to Thomas (1997, p.27), that: “the grief reactions to pet loss are similar to those for human loss. The attachment scales found in this research showed that 50-60% of the subjects were as attached to their pets as they were to humans or more so.” Weisman (1991, p. 242) reports that it is not unusual to hear a client hesitatingly say: “I’ve actually mourned more for my pet than I did for my father”.

When a person has a very strong bond with an animal (sharing a relationship and life of affection together), the loss of this pet can be a very difficult experience. “You can’t reconcile the phrase “just a dog” with the hours spent at the vet, the countless walks, the throwing of a ball and occasional fetching, the feeding, worrying, caring, patting, laughing. He wasn’t just a dog. He was our dog.” Kelly (2006, p.16).

Catherine Troy (2002, p.1) writes that when former U.S. President, Bill Clinton’s dog Buddy was killed in a car accident, many people sneered at him when he said he was deeply saddened by the animal’s death. He insisted he would truly miss his loyal companion.

Baydak (2000, p. 37 / 38) says that research shows that grief at the loss of a pet is generally “truncated or an abbreviated grief”. She claims that pet owners come to terms with the death of their pet in a shorter space of time than people grieving a significant human death. She believes the reason for this may be due to the fact that with human death there are often legal and financial matters to settle and the bereaved person’s entire life may be disrupted. Because animals do not leave estates and because their deaths don’t generally have as big an impact on social relationships and interactions, grief and loss, while real and raw, can be resolved more quickly. Psychiatrist David Abrahamson (1997, p.10), agrees that people may grieve for less time when they lose a pet. However, he argues that the experience can be just as intense for the individual and that length of grieving time is irrelevant.

Some people move through a grieving process naturally with uncomplicated, (normal) grief, but nonetheless work through their grief, and in time adjust to life without their pet.   Conversely, other people get stuck in a grieving process and experience complicated grieving. Tamina Toray (2002, p. 26) states “Complicated grief doesn’t lessen over time; instead it stays the same or gets worse.” She believes that this is when people need to reach out and talk to a counsellor. Or as Horowitz (1980, p. 1157) describes it: “.the intensification of grief to the level where the person is overwhelmed, resorts to maladaptive behaviour, or remains interminably in the state of grief without progression of the mourning process towards completion…“

The death of a pet may cause complicated grieving for a person in that the pet’s death might bring up other losses they may not have dealt with or fully accepted. A pet owner who seems unable to move through the grief process may be reacting to previous losses for which closure was not effectively attained. Barton Ross and Baron-Sorensen (2007, p. 143-144), claim that issues such as divorce, deaths of loved ones (humans and pets), should be considered in the counselling process.

Another consideration is to whom a person links their pet.   The pet may have been a gift from someone special, or could be the pet of someone who has since died. Dunn (1997, p.115) says that: “Often the pet is a link to the past. Someone gave the owner the pet, or they inherited it from a family member, and it’s their last tie to that person.” Bowlby (1998, p.159) gives an example of a woman who found herself totally distraught and “weeping bitterly” after the death of her parakeet which had formerly belonged to her mother. He says that she was astonished that she should grieve so deeply but “she soon realized that the recent loss had aroused grief for her mother….whom she had not mourned deeply.”

Wosket (2006, p.215) reminds us that the process of mourning is a very individual response and has “a range of experiences and emotional responses.”  Bowlby (1998, p.160) offers a possible explanation as to why a recent loss activates or reactivates grieving for an earlier loss: “..when a person loses the figure to whom he is currently attached, it is natural for him to turn for comfort to an earlier attachment figure. If, however, the latter, for example a parent, is dead the pain of the earlier loss will be felt afresh (or possibly for the first time). Mourning the earlier loss therefore follows.”

Euthanasia

Euthanasia is more commonly known as “putting an animal to sleep” or “putting down” an animal. Barton Ross and Baron-Sorensen (2007, p. 32), define the term euthanasia as meaning “good death” or “mercy killing.” They point out that owners often feel that they are choosing to “play God” and that they often regard this choice as being as difficult as if the decision were being made to euthanise a member of their human family. They state that sometimes it is a decision that an owner has to make immediately, but often, it is a decision that has to be made over a period of time. This knowledge that an impending decision will soon be upon them, may lead to an owner experiencing anticipatory grief. As Therese A. Rando (1986, p.24) defined it: “the phenomenon encompassing the processes of mourning, coping, interaction, planning and psychosocial reorganisation that are stimulated and being in part in response to the awareness of impending loss of a loved one. The impending loss and realisation a client experiences may need to be supported by counselling.

Tozeo-Jarolmen (2007, p.10) claims that euthanasia can be the kindest choice we can make for a much loved pet by giving them a “good death”. She also emphasises that it can be “one of the most difficult farewells to accept and is a frequent source of guilt that should be discussed openly.” Toray (2001, p.6) claims that counsellors in a therapeutic setting can offer a supportive atmosphere to examine this issue.” Many vets are very compassionate and supportive when helping someone come to this difficult decision.

Barton Ross and Baron-Sorensen (2007, p.36-37) concur. They say that owners can carry guilt over a decision to end a pet’s life. They may feel that they did it too soon or could possibly feel guilty because it wasn’t just a release for the pet, but a release for themselves too, not having to care for a sick animal anymore. Conversely, they say that a client may feel that they prolonged the animals suffering for longer than they should have, because as owners, they couldn’t let go or bear to make the decision. According to Bradley (2002, p. 34), a person might feel guilty because they didn’t have the funds to pursue expensive treatment to make their pet better and the only option was euthanasia. He believes that some people will also feel guilty because they couldn’t stay with their pet while it was being euthanised. They feel that they couldn’t do that one last thing for them.

Children and Pet Loss

The grief children feel at the loss of a pet will depend upon how they view their relationship with the pet. The pet could be a best friend to the child and in some circumstances could be a source of comfort and protection for the child. For example, Barker (1999, p.2), in a retrospective study, found that pets were a very strong support to children who were victims of sexual abuse. In this study, they found in some cases, the pet was the only reported source of support for the child during their abusive childhood.

For the child, a pet animal encourages a sense of responsibility, caring and communication. The relationship instils confidence and friendship – qualities, which can endure and grow as the child moves on through life. Poresky and Hendrix (1990), Van Houtte and Jarvis (1995) as cited in Barker (1999, p. 1 / 2), also found that children with pets have higher levels of self- esteem, empathy and self-concept than those who do not.

When a child cares for a pet on a daily basis or sees it as a playmate or friend, the loss, if not explained to them properly can be confusing for them. Carmack (2003, p. 88) explains that the grief children feel can be similar to the grief of an adult: “intense, unfamiliar, threatening and frightening.” She says for many children, their pets are their best friends. Children can have feelings of sorrow, anger and self-blame just as adults do. Carmack (2003, p.88) also notes that for many children, the first loss they experience is the loss of a pet.

Carmack (2003, p. 90) believes that when explaining death to children, honesty is the best policy. She advises that they receive truthful information and that their questions are honestly and kindly answered. Helping children with grief, she feels, involves speaking to them at their level of development, using simple language for younger children and more advanced explanations for older children. She also suggests that a child’s feelings should be honoured and respected and they should be allowed to honour the pet’s memory, should they wish to, by having a ceremony or a ritual.

However, society in general, usually tries to hide death from children and Barton Ross and Baron-Sorensen (2007, p.81-83) state that sometimes a child isn’t allowed to say goodbye to a beloved pet, or they become confused as to where the pet actually has gone. Sometimes parents try to cover up the fact that their child’s pet has died in an attempt to spare the child from distress and grief.

However, Barton Ross and Baron-Sorensen (2007, p. 82-84) reveal that while lying about the fate of the pet may be well intended, it also takes away the child’s right to say goodbye and ultimately isn’t in the best interests of the child. Children often discover afterwards that they were lied to and this can be very upsetting for them. They say that while grief is very painful for a child and very painful for a parent watching the child grieving, it is better than lying to them. They say that “protecting children from this process does more harm than good, as that teaches them that displaying their feelings is wrong.”

They also say that children have a great capacity for understanding death and the life cycle and once their questions and concerns are handled sensitively and respectfully, they will work through their grief. In their counselling practice, they have dealt with many clients, who have often brought up issues of unresolved pet loss grief, that weren’t effectively dealt with in childhood.

Kubler-Ross (1981, p.9) believes that we should make every effort possible to teach children at a young age “that we can express our feelings openly and unashamedly, that there are people around who will express their opinion and understand them without the need to judge and label and discredit them.”

Caregivers Do’s and Don’ts When Dealing with a Grieving Child

Do Say the Following:

  • I’m sorry
  • I cannot imagine how difficult this must be for you
  • How are you feeling?
  • I don’t know what to say (if this is the case)
  • I’d like to hear about your feelings
  • I care about you
  • We have a lot of memories together regarding (pet). Do you remember when…?
  • Tell me about your pet and what he or she meant to you

 

Do not say the following

  • At least you have other pets
  • You can get another pet to replace the one you lost
  • God needed your pet more than you did
  • Your pet is in a better place
  • It is God’s will
  • I know just how you feel
  • It was just a pet – we can get another one
  • Don’t cry
  • You should…. You shouldn’t
  • You have to be strong

Barton Ross and Baron-Sorensen (2007 p.88) – Adapted slightly 

The above can also be useful when dealing with adults and their feelings around the death of their pet. Many people enjoy close social and emotional relationships with their pets and the human-animal bond deserves to be respected and better understood. Based on the fact that people have significant attachments to their pets, it stands to reason that when a loss occurs the owner will grieve for their pet and display many of the emotions and symptoms of grief they would experience on the loss of a human loved one.   They are grieving for their pet but also may be experiencing the loss of companionship, comfort, security and love.

Disenfranchised grieving, as experienced with pet loss, is a lonely place for a person to be. With human loss there is societal support available for those grieving. People are granted the right to grieve and funerals and services help to validate a mourner’s sense of loss. Not so with pet loss, even though it is very evident that the bond formed between pets and their owners’ is both deep and enduring. In fact, pets play different roles in the lives of pet owners and in many cases are seen as family members. The resulting grief that occurs when the bond is broken is shown to be at least equivalent and as real to that experienced at the breaking of a human-human death bond. We need to be informed and aware of the emotional and social impact of losing a pet. Because pets don’t always die naturally, we may need to consider what making a painful decision to euthanise may be like for a pet owner.

Clearly we need to understand that any loss experienced is because of the bond or attachment the person has with their pet. Investigating what the pet meant to the person, what role they had in the person’s life and just inviting a person to “Tell me about your pet.”

In particular, we may need to look at whether we believe loss should be validated for one type of animal over another, for example, the loss of a dog vs. the loss of a budgie. Maybe we think the loss of a dog might be greater than the loss of a budgie.

Wedderburn (2008, p.17), stresses that “a pet fills the emotional space of a human being. He says “It’s a relationship and when that relationship ends, it hurts. It’s a wrench.” As we have seen, the bereaved pet owner is not just grieving the loss of a pet, but rather the loss of a particular individual with whom he or she had a relationship. Whether the loss is that of an animal or a human being is immaterial.   When someone loves their pet, that pet can be a being that shares day to day life with them where there are no boundaries of human vs. animal.

In other words, species is irrelevant. What is important is validating the relationship that has been lost.

 

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