Pet Loss - An Underestimated Grief
Our second blog in recognition of the first ever UK Grief Awareness Week looks at the impact of pet loss, which is often a misunderstood and dismissed loss.
Loss of a Pet
When bereavement and loss is mentioned, death of a loved one is the default assumption. Grief is the normal and natural reaction to any loss however the loss of a pet is often diminished in its impact upon a person or family. Pets regardless of them being a dog, cat, budgie or goldfish will have an emotional impact on an individual because it is often an unconditional and rewarding relationship. Most people will experience a loss of a pet (often more than one) at some stage in their lives. Some say this loss can be rationalised when you are an adult as animals such as dogs have shorter life expectancy than that of a person. However, the loss of a pet can sometimes be the first experience of death for a child and is often a defining memory. How loss of a pet is addressed or dismissed can have just as a significant impact as the loss of a loved one.
PDSA estimate 25% of the UK have a cat and 24% of the UK have a dog. These are significant numbers and indicates the importance of four-legged companionship. Regardless of the motivation for pet ownership the relationship with an animal is just as significant as a relationship with another person and so is the loss. Whether it’s a family pet, a companion for an elderly person, a Guide Dog or Assistance Dog, people are often devastated at the loss of a pet and often there is little support or understanding around this type of loss.
We frequently meet with people who talk to us of their bereavement experience and we have been given permission to share some of those experiences:
Following my husband’s diagnosis with early onset dementia, my life was turned upside down. I was now a full-time carer losing the man I loved and knew, and our family were also losing the father and Grandfather they loved and knew. A piece of my husband disappeared with each day that passed, we all struggled to support him and keep his memories alive for as long as we possibly could.
I often could not get through to my husband the blank looks, anger and tears often came my way or that of my eldest daughter. The pain I felt at not being able to comfort my husband was heart breaking. Dogs had been his life as a dog handler and dog behaviorist, and we were a family of dog lovers. No matter how lost and distressed my husband became Brodie our Weimaraner always managed to calm him, raise a smile and took him to a safe and peaceful place.
Brodie was the linchpin of what remained of our marriage and provided a glimmer of what we were, walking was the one routine my husband could hold onto until the Dementia took him. When not soothing my husband, she was my companion on the sofa in the early hours of the morning when sleep evaded him. She was always pleased to see me when I returned when my husband’s expression would remain blank.
The effects of dementia finally stole my husband and the loss of his passing was indescribable. I returned home to Brodie and was met with the warmest welcome and love. Just as she didn’t leave his side when he was alive, she didn’t leave my side. She became my bedfellow, my sofa companion, my reason for getting out of bed each day.
As the condolences and support regarding my husband disappeared, Brodie never did. Time marched on and at the grand old age of 10, Brodie started showing signs of her age even if her puppy like exuberance defied her age. Lumps started appearing the walks started getting slightly shorter, some mornings I would have to wake her for our morning stomp. In my heart I knew we were on borrowed time. The trips to the vets increased and phrases such as “she’s got to a good age” started being said. The day I dreaded arrived one lump too many, her breathing was laboured, and her legs were starting to fail.
Our last night was snuggled on the sofa together and I held her close all night knowing I was going to lose my best friend and my reason for being. She had been my light in in my darkest hour, never let me down and in a bizarre way the thought of her going was more painful then when my husband died. I walked Brodie for one last time, cooked her chicken and hand fed her, then my daughter drove us one last time. I cried harder in that moment when Brodie slipped away then when my husband died. In that moment I loss my best friend and reason for putting one foot in front of the other.
The hours and days that followed were a blur just as they were when my husband died. My daughter had sensitively removed the main reminders – dog bowl, bed and lead but I was utterly lost. I didn’t realise how many conversations Brodie and I had, I really missed those. People made the right noises; the vet even sent a condolence card which was oddly comforting. I flinched the first time someone said, “it’s only a dog”, closely followed by “just get another one”. No one said that when my husband died yet for Brodie that was quite acceptable. I struggled being around people, I didn’t want to get out of bed, I didn’t go for my daily walks I was devastated but trying desperately to hide it. To be completely honest losing Brodie was equally painful as my husband and I haven’t replaced him nor could I replace Brodie.
Supporting people with pet loss
There are several things that can be done to support someone experiencing the loss of a pet. Here are a few do’s and don’ts.
· Give them time and space to talk about their pet
· Do check they are OK
· Do help build new routines such as going for walks
· Underestimate the pain a person experiences when losing a pet
· Say it’s only a…..
· Suggest getting a replacement.
· Underestimate the significance the pet played in that person’s life and routine.
· Do not compare your own pet losses, each one is individual, and each experience is unique.
· Say time will heal.
Find out more or share your experience
If you would like to find out more about emotional support training, resilience training or how we can support with loss through our certified grief recovery specialists please visit the website to find out more.