An inevitable part of the animal bond relationship is one of loss. Our pet’s lifespan is commonly shorter than ours. However, we are often unprepared for the levels of despair and deep sorrow that we experience, when they die.
Many times, we do not know what to do when animals pass away. In part, it is a societal issue, as there is a discrepancy between how we mourn the loss of a person and how we mourn the loss of an animal. In addition to observing a person’s death through rituals, customs, and protocols, we actually have grievance and counseling paradigms that help us cope. But, it is not the same for the loss experienced in the human-animal bond. There is much less observance, understanding and agreement about customs and protocols.
It is hard to share about one’s grief, when we experience the death of a person. It seems to be even harder to share about the loss of an animal. Friends and family may offer condolences, but are often surprised if the sadness or depression lasts more than a short time.
Whether people know it or are comfortable with it, mourning the loss of an animal is normal. And, just as most people would agree it is healthy to mourn the loss of a person, it is healthy to mourn the loss of an animal…for as long as necessary.
Because our connection with animals is deeper than we are often aware of, we may also be unclear about how many layers of loss exist. For example, the loss experienced in the death contains, within it, the additional loss of an identity that was defined by the relationship, itself.
Additionally, something many people do not consider, the loss of a pet has the potential to retrigger previous loss. The importance and identity of having a bond with an animal may be as important as that with a brother, father, mother, or wife. The pure love and devotion does not feel replaceable.
It is important people understand just how deep the connection can be. The animal-human bond warrants that we allow ourselves to grieve, when we experience the loss of an animal we care about.
Stopping or inhibiting the grieving process is problematic. Just as in the death of a person, when people experience the loss from an animal’s death, people may experience an increase in anxiety and depression.. thought process and judgment can become impaired, and behavior may shift dramatically. This may be compounded if a person feels loss, but experiences an incongruence with other people’s perceptions about the loss. If a person has disturbance, but feels trapped and unable to express themselves, life’s functions may become even more impacted.
Curiously, there are people who may be afraid of feeling loss about people, or loss in their own lives, related to their Self. However, these same people are able to feel mourn at the loss of their pets. In treatment, people may resist recounting and processing the traumas of war, or the deaths of loved ones, only to break down at the loss of a pet, who had quietly helped the person to weather these past storms.
In the many ways we look at our relationships with animals, it would seem that we should not be surprised at the feelings that they invoke in us. After all, they often demonstrate that our happiness is one of their primary intentions.
There is a profound connection that exists in the human-animal bond… and it is important that we come to terms with our loss, when that light is extinguished.
For more information on treatment for pet bereavement, contact Vera Muller-Paisner.
Written by Vera Muller-Paisner, LCSW