Pet Loss: A Particular Grief
How does grief affect us when it relates to an animal companion? An animal enthusiast himself, therapist and author Ken Dolan-Del Vecchio led pet loss groups for over a decade. To mark National Pet Month in the UK, he urges practitioners to appreciate the intensity of a grief that can often leave clients feeling isolated and stigmatised.
I was in Düren, Germany, on March 10 visiting Erik and Christina, my son and daughter-in-law, when I got the invitation to write this blog. Three days later, the US government’s hastily imposed travel ban had me on the Tube from London City Airport to Heathrow. I hoped my standby ticket for the final leg of my new hodgepodge itinerary home would become a seat on Boston-bound British Airways flight 239.
After the tube train rose above ground, I watched London, a city I had not expected to visit, stream before me. The strangeness of it all brought a mix of feelings I recognised as grief: shock, confusion, sadness and anger at having to leave my son days before planned and under such worrisome circumstances, and guilt for having made the trip at all amid news of the virus.
Every notable change, even the best – a marriage, a newborn’s birth – brings a measure of grief for what’s been lost. Every therapist should be skilled at helping their clients recognise, normalise, and honour these feelings. While grief has many possible origins, I’ll focus here on one in particular that doesn’t always receive full recognition. For 12 years, I led support groups for people who had lost an animal companion. I share below three challenges typical of their experience (and you’ll find a list of pet loss tips you can share directly with your clients on my website).
Losing an animal companion causes many people more anguish than losing their parent, sibling, or a close friend. I have heard this from people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds, including parents with children at home, people with satisfying couple relationships, and people with rich friendship networks. Almost invariably, they express guilt, questioning whether they truly loved their human family members. It helps to emphasise the commonality of their experience and assure that it casts no doubt upon their feelings for those lost. Possible explanations for the intensity: the uncomplicated nature of the human-companion animal bond, its extraordinary closeness (how many other beings do we touch with our hands so regularly?), and how caring for a pet’s every need builds intimacy rivaling that between parent and infant.
While it’s common for people to experience some degree of guilt while grieving any loss, two factors in addition to the one mentioned above often compound the guilt accompanying this loss. First, not possessing the power of speech, animals depend entirely upon us to remedy their failing health. Many pet owners damn themselves for not catching an early symptom that, in reality, no human being could have been expected to spot. There is also the euthanasia conundrum. Questions about whether and when to end a pet’s suffering can rarely be answered with absolute conviction. The inherent uncertainty invites a cascade of doubt and guilt.
Mainstream culture’s emphasis on positivity, happiness, and resilience, coupled with its aversion to everything related to death, conspires to stigmatise all but the most short-lived expressions of grief no matter what loss we’ve suffered. Add to this how a sizable number of people objectify animals (“Why don’t you just get another?”) and you’ll begin to grasp how isolated and stigmatised your client may feel. Stigma can also have real consequences. A number of people have told me that mentioning their grief at work caused a supervisor to view them as less worthy of key assignments and promotion.
Many of us love our animal companions dearly and experience extraordinary grief when they die. We may also feel racked with guilt for “having failed them”. And, mentioning any of this may cause others to view us negatively. Please keep these realities in mind when working with clients who have experienced such losses. And, thank you for helping your clients with this important life challenge.