The role of pets in modern times can vary greatly. More than 70 percent of pet owners view their pets as members of the family. When a pet dies, it is not uncommon for indiv-iduals to experience feelings of great loss, sometimes more intense than those for the loss of a human being.
Many pet owners develop a special bond with their pets. It is common for individuals who share this special bond with their pet to experience grief more intensely and more frequently than owners who do not. While the level of grief may vary among pet owners, most experience some degree of loss when a pet dies.
When experiencing the loss of a pet, going through a grieving process is essential for healing to occur. Reaching out to someone may be the most difficult task of all. Pet owners often use phrases like “This is silly” or “If anyone knew I felt this way, they’d think I was crazy.”
An effective way to normalize the reaction to pet loss would be for caring family or friends to acknowledge the loss and/or offer to memorialize the pet in some way, such as:
Send a card acknowledging the loss
Offer to be part of a memorial gathering
Plant a tree or shrub in memory of the pet
Make a donation to an animal shelter in memory of the pet
Visit with the owner and relive memories about the pet
Call to let the owner know you care
These are a few options available. Utilize the information you have about the owner and deceased pet to consider other innovative ways to memorialize.
Everyone travels through grief in their own way. Some pet owners are ready for a new pet very quickly and others need more time to grieve. Some individuals may choose to keep their grief private and not acknowledge or express grief openly. It is important to be respectful of each individual’s preference.
Another issue which may be affecting grief is euthanasia. Pet owners can choose to end the life of their pet, and this decision is usually extremely difficult for most owners. “When” to do it is the most arduous part of the question: too soon emits doubts of ending a life still worthwhile, too late emits fears of having promoted suffering. Support pet owners in their decision and be aware feelings may be a bit more complicated if euthanasia was chosen.
We know pets play a variety of roles in the lives of people, with many being considered members of the family. A pet’s death can be considered a significant loss for many individuals. If you have lost a pet, share your feelings with a trusted friend or family member. If you know someone who has lost a pet, acknowledge the loss and offer your support. Like any loss, if feelings become overwhelming or last for an extended period of time, please consult a professional.
JEAN ALSTAT has a Master of Science in educational psychology with a specialization in community counseling. She is the Wellness and Intervention director at Southern Illinois Regional Social Services.