Coping with the death of a pet (also increasingly known as a ‘companion animal’*), may bring other challenges not experienced with the death of a human. When a human dies, societies have a way of dealing with the death. This might include factors such as:
- how long it is expected that someone will publicly grieve
- how to remember the person – eg. gravestone
- ceremony – burial or cremation
In addition, whilst we might feel uncomfortable being around someone who is bereaved from the death of a person, we do expect someone bereaved to be upset and to grieve for a period of time after experiencing a death.
For a pet however, the situation tends to be different – although this does depend on specific people, and is only a generalisation.
For a pet:
- ceremonies are not commonly offered, although some pet crematoriums do offer pet funerals
- it does not seem to be so accepted that someone may be as upset as if they had experienced the death of a human
- those around a grieving owner, may offer words such as, ‘it was only a cat’, ‘you can always get another one’, ‘he/she had a good life’ etc …
Someone experiencing the death of a pet in particular, may therefore experience what is termed ‘disenfranchised grief‘ (see Supporting grief) – where the person’s grief is not adequately acknowledged by those around them, which may lead to that person feeling more isolated, and more upset.
From my own experience, and from talking with other people, as well as from the research I have done, I have come to realise that the death of a pet tends not to be given the same importance as the death of a human being – that a bereaved pet owner is perhaps not expected to be as upset as if they had experienced the death of a family member or a friend … People are less like to say:
- ‘it was only your dad’
- ‘you can have another child’
… yet because animals may be our closest friends, whom we may care for and cherish, the depth of feelings that pet owners may feel at the death of their pet may often feel as great, if not more than they might experience following the death of a human family member or friend.
In modern society, we have reached a point at which we don’t tend to let our pets die a natural death – if we feel they are suffering, we have the option to do, what we are told ‘is the kindest thing to do‘, which is to ‘put them to sleep‘. This can be the hardest thing for a pet owner to ‘have’ to do. We may be faced with this option if an animal has suddenly become ill, such as with a road accident, or sudden illness, or be faced with this over a period of time, as with a longer illness or complicated injury.
We may have the inevitable choice to make of when to give up nursing that animal – to admit defeat that they are never going to get better, and/or that their suffering is ‘too great’ and so we should then ‘do them the ultimate kindness’.
So we can find ourselves in a situation where we are nursing a sick animal – where it is taking a lot of our time, with those around us perhaps not wanting us to spend all of that time doing that. All of that nursing may result in daily household jobs not getting done, and so things start to slide, and it becomes more difficult to exist in a ‘normal’ family routine, whilst also nursing your pet. We may find ourselves stuck – needing to devote an ever increasing amount of our time to nursing our pet, in a difficult situation with those around us perhaps feeling resentful of that time, but stuck because if we don’t look after the animal then it may have no chance of getting better – so we carry on, hoping that our care will help them to get better and keep them alive.
However, at some point, that nursing will necessarily stop – hopefully because our pet has got better, in which case, that’s fantastic ! However, the nursing may stop because we have had that chat with the vet and decided to call it a day and end our pet’s life – at some point. In this situation, especially if we know that our pet is likely to die, we are in a ‘no-win’ situation – devoting more and more time to looking after our pet, with perhaps more and more household jobs at home not getting done – a situation which in effect has to end at some point because those jobs such as the school run, cooking food etc … have to be done. The only point in this situation at which you will get that time back from nursing your animal is when it dies – so you are stuck in a rubbish situation with needing to nurse your pet, but a situation in which the only way in which that is going to end is with the death of your pet.
That doesn’t happen with humans as much as it does with pets, as we tend to let people die when their body is ready to die – assisted dying where someone helps someone else to die is not currently legal in the UK. This adds a complicating factor to grieving for a pet -the fact that it is the norm these days for a pet owner to have to make, what can be an extremely distressing decision, to end their cherished pet’s life. We would all perhaps prefer our animal to make its own mind up about when it wants to die – to go out in the garden, find a nice bush, and lay down and die a peaceful, pain-free death. That would perhaps be preferable to the option of ‘having’ to make the decision to end that animal’s life ourself …
Making this decision brings into play even more emotions and thoughts, many along the lines of:
- ‘was it the right time’
- ‘did I do it too early – could my pet have recovered’
- ‘did I do it too late – did my pet suffer’
As a bereaved pet owner, who is trying to deal with the loss of your pet, you may then have to deal with intense feelings of guilt at what you have done, anger perhaps at yourself, and or the vet at having had your animal ‘put to sleep’, and just complete distress at the whole situation.
Added to that, you then have to deal with the practicalities of your pet’s death with making decisions regarding burial or cremation, what casket to chose, how you are going to pay the crematorium, as well as having to get rid of any medications you have at home that you now no longer need – which all remind you of the beloved pet that you no longer have around you.
All of this can be made even worse if the people around you just don’t get’ how upset you may be feeling – and keep feeling.
Pet Bereavement support and counselling
It may be that the healing you need, either with family or friends, or on your own, is to cry and cry and cry – if that is the case, don’t underestimate the importance and healing value of crying – and crying, and crying. However, you may feel the need to talk or just ‘be’ with someone you don’t know – either face to face, on the phone, or chatting online. Everyone is different, and we all need different types of support as we go through our lives.
If you feel that you need support from other people, please see my Help page for their contact details, as I have included some information about obtaining outside help. I have included there some additional information about myself – if you would like to see if I can be of any help during your grieving.
If you do come to see me – before or after the death of your pet, I would hope that I can offer you empathy and understanding. I will not try to diminish the importance of that death. I will not try to hurry you through your grieving. What I will do however, is listen to you and sit with you whilst you go through your grieving. It may take you a long time to feel that you are on an even keel again.
* the term ‘companion animal’ is increasingly used instead of ‘pet’, but for reference please see the Society for Companion Animal Studies
Angela Fletcher Bereavement Counselling