Pet Bereavement: Why It's Never 'Just An Animal'
For many, pets become part of the family, and we relate to them on an emotional and instinctive level
The loss of a pet can feel similar, or harder, than other bereavements, says counsellor Samantha Arditti
If you are struggling with feelings of grief after the loss of a pet, find a therapist here
Having had personal experience of the deep sadness and pain felt when a pet dies I am all too aware of how often the depth of the loss can go unacknowledged by those around us.
I knew when I was training to be a counsellor that I wanted to offer pet bereavement support as part of my work and to ensure it was recognised as a legitimate loss, but unfortunately it is still seen as a niche area by many within the counselling community and the wider world.
The lack of counsellors working in this area, not just in the UK but also internationally, was highlighted to me by the fact I often get requests for pet bereavement counselling by Skype from clients as far away as South Africa and the US. However in the last month I have been contacted by a counselling psychology PhD student and a psychotherapy masters student, both of whom are writing dissertations on pet bereavement and have asked for my help in their research, so I am hopeful that attitudes are slowly changing.
Why is losing a pet so hard?
For people who have loved and lost a pet, the grief can be every bit as strong and raw as that felt over the death of a human loved one, yet this grief can be ignored or diminished by others, leading to feelings of isolation, shame and disenfranchisement. When we take an animal into our homes they become part of our family, and we mourn them in exactly the same way. Unfortunately not everyone sees it this way and I have had distraught clients report that well-meaning friends, family, colleagues and – dare I say it - other therapists, do not understand or validate their loss and have suggested they just get another pet, as if their beloved animal were so easily replaceable. For some, giving a new pet a home right away can help, but for others they need the space and time to grieve – there is no ‘correct’ way to deal with the loss.
Nobody should be made to feel silly for mourning a beloved pet, or to feel they have to suffer alone.
Grief around an animal dying can also sometimes be complicated by the fact that we may have had to euthanise our companion, which can lead to irrational feelings of guilt that we are somehow responsible for their death and have ‘killed’ them. Also, because our relationship with our animals is non-verbal, people can be taken by surprise and overwhelmed with the strength of our emotions when we lose them. Clients sometimes tell me that the rawness and physical pain they feel when their pet dies is more visceral than when say a friend or family member dies, which can incite feelings of shame and self-criticism. I think this may be because animals are wholly dependent on us throughout their lives, and we relate to them on a more instinctive, emotional level.
Pet bereavement and complicated grief
Another element of pet bereavement I have witnessed is how the death of an animal can open up previously unprocessed feelings and grief around older losses. As a Gestalt counsellor I work primarily in the here and now, but it is important to recognise that clients may be dealing with multiple layers of complicated grief and may ultimately need to talk about other significant losses in the past and what impact they may still be having.
As with any loss, human or animal, what can help is to acknowledge the significance of the relationship, and to realise that the pain we feel is a way of honouring that bond and love. I sometimes recommend to clients that they do something commemorative in their pet’s name, plant a tree for instance or make a donation to an animal welfare charity. Online forums and Facebook animal/pet groups can also be suggested as sources of support and understanding. I set up a Facebook page Pet Bereavement Counselling by Skype as a resource for people going through loss, and also have a dedicated pet bereavement page on my website.
I also work with local veterinarians in South West London to suggest ways they might best support their clients when an animal dies. In the case of an animal being put to sleep, I recommend that they light a candle and put up a small sign to explain what is happening to give the occasion the gravitas it deserves, and so that others in the waiting room can be empathic and respectful.
Realising that there is no way around grief, you need to go through it, but that you don’t need to suffer alone, can be enormously helpful for clients, and a strong, compassionate therapeutic bond can be a lifeline when they are feeling sad and isolated in their grief.
My own dog, a 12-year-old whippet called Serge, has a bed in my therapy room and no client has ever asked for him not to be there. It’s heartening to see how people enjoy having him by their side and find him a soothing presence, whether they have come to see me specifically for pet bereavement or not. Animals enhance our lives in so many ways; I believe it is only right that we allow ourselves to fully mourn their loss when they leave us.