Myths and Realities of Pet Bereavement
Although there has been progress made in regards to pet bereavement in the last 40 years, especially in the last decade, there still something very taboo about the subject and has a lot of negative connotations and myths attached to it.
In the UK alone, there is an estimated 13 million dogs and 12 million cats living in homes as furry family members. Not forgetting any rabbits, hamsters, gerbils, horses or other feathered, finned, scaly or slithering members.
With animals being scientifically proven to help improve our mental health with their compassion and unconditional love and providing us with a sense of routine and structure to our lives, there is no wonder that when that bond can no longer continue that grief hits us hard. The sad fact is that, like we humans, our animal friends can’t live forever (their only fault really) and this ultimately means there will come a day when you have to say “Until we meet again”.
Why then is it still so frowned upon or unheard of to grieve losing that soul?
Workplaces in the UK and most worldwide don’t have a pet bereavement policy with employers stating that they felt like too many people would take advantage of this policy and that it wasn’t necessary due to “being able to replace an animal”. This is absolutely not acceptable and isn’t actually wrong. No furry family member can be replaced as they are all completely individual in personality just as much as children are. It can be extremely detrimental to the grief process to introduce another furry family member into the picture if you have just experienced a loss too and shouldn’t be used as answer to deal with the situation.
Once again, everyone would recoil, quite rightly, in horror should an employer tell an employee they couldn’t get time to grieve a human loss as they could just have another child or find another human to replace their family member.
It may seem extreme, but it’s not, many people can’t have or have decided not to have children and their furry family member is the same level as a child. They have created an unbreakable bond and that soul is sometimes for many, a lifeline.
Pet bereavement can also be depression inducing and if not worked through properly, cause further mental health complications that could result in having to take a long period off from work such as PTSD. Having to be the one to make the decision to euthanise a furry family member when the time comes that they are going to suffer if they carry on is a heavy burden to bear and can cause feelings of guilt. If a furry family member was attacked or in a road accident, that is something that can shock you for a long time and cause some difficult feelings to arise. Not being given the time to deal with those feelings is dangerous to the future of your mental-wellbeing as it not being taken seriously.
Myths really can hinder the process of healthy grieving. Those who don’t work through their feelings and reactions about mourning are likely to experience a variety of physical, intellectual, emotional and mental symptoms later down the line.
Here are some of the most common myths and the reality in comparison to help overcome them.
Reality: Individuals who say this, or believe this, are judgmental. Experiencing powerful feelings over the loss of a loved animal companion is, usually, normal and healthy. People who have strong feelings about the loss of a pet have them because they are capable of intimate attachments and deep emotional bonding. This is something to be proud of, not something to put down.
Reality: Adding on from what has already been covered, the loss of a beloved animal companion can be as emotionally significant, even more significant, than the loss of a human friend or relative. People are capable of simultaneously loving and caring about both animals and humans. One doesn’t have to detract from the other.
Reality: It takes courage to reach out to others. Mourners can greatly benefit by empathy, caring and understanding of supportive others. But be selective about where you turn to for help since some people do not take pet loss seriously.
Reality: It is rare that anyone ever achieves complete resolution or closure to a profound loss. One if left with the psychological scars, if not with incompletely healed wounds. It is unrealistic to expect that you will one day be left with only pleasant memories. Besides, being left with only pleasant memories is one-sided and doesn’t present a balanced view of reality- not a goal that would be healthy or valuable to pursue. One cannot fully appreciate pleasant memories unless one has unpleasant memories to contrast them with.
Reality: Euthanasia is a compassionate and humane way to end the intense suffering or declining quality of life of a companion animal. Viewed in this context, it would be selfish to unnecessarily prolong the suffering of a seriously ill or injured animal. Ask yourself this: Whose needs and best interests are being served – those of the owner or animal companion?
Reality: The 5 Stages of Grief are well understood and accepted, although how people experience them is often different from individual to individual, and not every person experiences every phase or every stage in order. These stages are not prescriptions for how to act when grieving but simply a guide to the grieving process.
Reality: Upsetting feelings and thoughts will not go away. They will, instead, go underground (fester and become unconscious) and later return – causing you problems. Achieve a balance by thinking and talking about what is upsetting you when you are able, but avoid overdoing it. Know your limits.
Reality: This may be an example where the listener has good intentions but will produce bad effects by their response. People who talk about their unpleasant feelings are looking for a receptive ear. Redirecting the conversation or changing the subject reflects the discomfort of the listener rather than the needs of the mourner.
Reality: Time does heal all wounds, but patience is necessary and some people may need further assistance to move beyond the grieving process if that person feels “stuck” in it for months or years on end.
Reality: Depriving yourself of an animal companion is a very high price to pay to help insure yourself against experiencing another painful loss. Instead, you may wish to summon up the courage to put in the effort necessary to work through your mourning related psychological issues. Despite your pains of loss, you can still look forward to one day sharing happiness, pleasure and joy with a new and unique animal companion. It is unfortunate fact that one of the prices we pay for loving so deeply is to suffer deeply when the bonds with our cherished animal friends are broken.
Reality: Just because children do not react as overtly as adults, or communicate directly with words, does not mean they aren’t experiencing strong reactions inside. Not infrequently, the loss of a pet (whether by death or another cause) is the first significant loss the child will experience. The profound effects of this loss, and how the parents or caregivers handle it, might reverberate in the child for many years to come.
Reality: Some parents/caregivers think they are helping their child – sparing them pain – when they do not tell them that their pet has died. They sometimes make up a story that they gave the pet away or that the pet ran away. Even if you are well-intentioned in doing this, it actually undermines the trust their child has in them and paradoxically, causes the child more pain in the long run. Some children, for example, will unfairly blame themselves for their pet ‘running away”.
You can use books to help them understand the situation; I wrote my book “How to Rest on a Rainbow” for this purpose. It’s a book the child can enjoy over and over, get comfort and not feel scared or anxious about their lost animal companion.
Reality: Some companion animals develop strong bonds with other pets in the household and they will show some of the same kinds of symptoms of mourning as people do – such as loss of appetite, “searching” for the missed loved one and acting depressed.
Reality: Some people have a self-interested need for you to “get over” your pet related mourning as soon as possible, before you are ready to do so. They feel uncomfortable with your distress. If, for example, you broke your arm you would go to A&E? So, why wouldn’t you see a human-animal bond specialist to get help for a broken heart?
This can be seen as an investment in your mental health and peace of mind.