Why losing a pet can hurt as much as losing a family member

Why losing a pet can hurt as much as losing a family member

Psychologists explain why the death of a pet can hurt as much as losing a family member and reveal how YOU can cope with bereavement

  • Grief over death of a pet can be as severe as losing a human, psychologists say
  • Pain correlates to the quality of the relationship you had with the loved one 
  • This is compounded by the lack of formal mourning rituals for pets in our culture
  • Talking to someone who’s had the same experience can be helpful for many 

The death of a pet can be just as painful as the death of a family member, psychologists have claimed. 

When Myra euthanised her dog Jason after a complicated illness, the loss affected her so badly, she had to take mental health leave from work. Nearly four years later the loss still looms large in her life.

‘I feel embarrassed that I still can’t speak about him without tearing up, but his illness and death was one of the worst things that ever happened to me,’ she said. ‘Going through that was even more difficult than losing family members. He was such an important presence in my life, and always by my side.

‘It took a long time to reconcile myself to the idea that he wasn’t ever going to physically be here anymore. At times the pain felt overwhelming.’

Like Myra, people are often embarrassed to express the depth of their grief when they lose a companion animal.

Speaking exclusively to FEMAIL, consultant clinical psychologist Dr Pat Franklish commented: ‘It is as painful, because it’s about attachment. If the significant attachment figure is a pet rather than a person, then the loss is the same. It’s the loss of a key attachment figure.’  

While grief is widely acknowledged as one of the most painful experiences humans can go through, often people don’t realise how profound the grief at losing a pet can be (stock image)

‘For people who live alone with a pet, and they don’t have a person they’re close to, they only have a pet they are close to, it’s worse.’ 

She continued: ‘If you’ve got parents and children, brothers and sisters, and lots of people in your life it may fall into a slightly different category. But if the animals in your life are your main attachment figures, then your loss is the same as it would be for a person.’ 

Grief is universally acknowledged as one of the most profoundly difficult emotions humans ever have to face. 

Losing loved ones is so significant, different cultures have created their own rituals for saying goodbye to people who’ve died. So why don’t we treat the deaths of beloved companion animals as seriously? 

People rarely hold funerals for dogs, or memorial services for cats. Mourners seldom gather to share fond memories of dearly departed furry friends.   

Bereavement happens to us all at some point in our lives, but how can YOU cope with it?  

For some, bereavement is sudden and unexpected, and even for those who know their loved one is dying it can come as a great shock. 

 What can you do to help yourself?

  • Talk to your close family and friends, especially those that you feel understand.
  • Don’t listen to those who say you ‘should be doing better than you are’.
  • Tell yourself that you are normal for feeling the way that you do.

 If you feel that you are not coping:

  • Visit your GP.
  • Don’t go back to work too soon.
  • Talk to someone close to you.

You could be referred for grief counselling. Sometimes it is helpful to talk to someone outside of your family and friends and it can be helpful to retell your story over and over again. 

This can help you to make sense of how you are feeling and it can help to normalise your feelings.

Not everyone finds it helpful to talk. Sometimes it can be more useful to keep busy. 

This is fine, providing that you are not pushing things away so that they build up to a point where you feel you are going to explode. 

It can be helpful to have an outlet when you feel like this, maybe a good friend to talk to or possibly some professional help.

Source: The British Psychological Society 

Consultant Practitioner Psychologist Ingrid Collins, who is the director of The Soul Therapy Centre in London, agrees that the death of an animal can be profoundly painful.

‘Any bereavement of a loved one is painful and the pain is in direct measure to the quality of the relationship we enjoyed with that loved one,’ explained Ingrid, who is also the co-author of ‘Bandit Burmilla Babies: Intimate conversations with a family of cats of love, pregnancy, birth, death, and separation. 

Often our pets enjoy a special place in our hearts because the connection is generally so honest and uncomplicated. 

‘In return for our care, compassion, and concern for their wellbeing, pets offer us a loving connection to the natural world, and they are more honest than most humans in the expression of emotions.’

The lack of rituals surrounding the death of a companion animal can also compound the grief, with people often lacking support. 

According to Dr Franklish: ‘People who don’t keep pets often don’t have any understanding at all, so they can be inadvertently (or sometimes deliberately) unkind, and sometimes shrug it off,’ she said.

‘They can say “it’s only a cat, it’s only a dog’, where in fact to the individual who lost (the animal) they were much more than that.’

For Ingrid Collins, the lack of formal mourning rituals means we “don’t give ourselves the opportunity for closure” when an animal dies’. 

‘It is not usual to receive letters of condolence either, as we would do when a close family relative passes,’ she added.

‘Often, children are admonished for displaying their distress over the loss of a beloved pet, because “it’s only an animal!” and it often is swiftly replaced with another. 

‘We learn in this way that animal lives have less value than human lives, and that our investment in love and care was not of the same value as that which we afford to humans.’

For Myra, and like many others, Jason’s death also brought with it guilt.

‘Making the decision to have him euthanised was almost easier than I thought it would be because I couldn’t bear the thought of him suffering any more than he had to,’ she said. ‘But going through with it was incredibly difficult. I second-guessed myself, and worried that he knew I was killing him. The guilt was very difficult to live with.’

According to psychologist Ingrid Collins: ‘Any bereavement process, be it from a human or animal loved one, involves guilt that comes after the initial numbing in disbelief and unwillingness to accept the reality of their passing. 

‘As our animals quite often elicit feelings akin to parental emotions, our feelings of responsibility are compounded. 

‘It is the most painful decision to take to end the physical presence of the beautiful soul who has given love, loyalty and trust to us.’ 

‘The first step is to own and acknowledge our painful emotions, and remember the reasons why the circumstances leading to our decision tipped the scales to that particular decision to action.’ 

Dr Franklish added: ‘You can save your pet pain and distress [by euthanising them] and that should give you a clear conscience, and not a guilty one.’ 

She went on to offer advice on how you can try and work through the grief when your beloved pet has died.

‘Most of us go and get another one, so replacement is one thing. Another thing is getting in contact with someone who’s had a similar loss to share the pain,’ said Dr Franklish.

Pets offer us a ‘loving connection to the natural world, and they are more honest than most humans in the expression of emotions’ a psychologist said (stock photo)

The consultant clinical psychologist went on to say that when it comes to dealing with feelings of guilt around replacing a dead companion animal, it is a ‘cognitive exercise as much as an emotional one’.   

‘Whichever way we look at it, dogs and cats aren’t going to live as long as us, so we can’t possibly expect one to last all our lives,’ she explained. ‘It’s about facing the realism of that. And if they could talk, they would tell us to go and get another answer.’ 

Other tips she has for working through grief include ‘avoiding people who might not understand’, until a time when it’s ‘manageable for you to talk about it without crying,’ and getting in touch with a helpline – such as the Blue Cross’ pet bereavement and loss service.   

Speaking to a pet bereavement line was helpful for Myra, who said: ‘While my friends and family were sympathetic, I got to a point where I wanted to talk to someone totally non-judgemental, who truly understood where I was coming from.

‘I found the helpline to be a good source of support, and I also found pet bereavement online forums to help. Everyone understood the depth of the grief, and feeling like I wasn’t alone helped.’

While Myra still feels great pain from Jason’s loss, she says she has now ‘reached a point of acceptance’ that he has died, and can now take some pleasure from happy memories. 

The key takeaway, Dr Franklish said, is that ‘the grief is real, and needs to be acknowledged as such by the person experiencing it and those around them’. 

Ingrid Collins concluded: ‘Grief ebbs and flows like the tide, and eventually subsides over time. However, If we become aware that our painful emotions are impeding the progress of our emotional wellbeing, that is the time to seek therapeutic help.’   

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