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Pet Loss: The Struggle to Heal When You’re Experiencing Disenfranchised Grief

Updated: Mar 25, 2022

“It can’t all be sorrow, can it? I’ve always been alone, so I don’t feel the lack. It’s all I’ve ever known. I’ve never experienced loss because I’ve never had a loved one to lose. But what is grief, if not love persevering?”- “Previously On.” WandaVision, created by Jac Schaeffer, season 1, episode 8, Marvel Studios, 2021.

I’ve always loved this quote and this probably won’t be the only time I use it in a blog post, especially since I write a lot about grief counseling. This quote, particularly the last line, resonates with many of my clients who are struggling with the loss of a loved one. However, loss of a pet comes with its own unique set of challenges.

Pet loss is one of the most devastating types of grief yet it is also the most misunderstood and dismissed type of grief. Many people who have lost a pet report feeling like the grief is just as painful as losing a human friend or family member. I have heard from more than one of my clients that they found the loss of a pet harder and more heartbreaking than losing a human family member. Yet, when people lose a pet, they aren’t always shown the proper level of compassion needed to heal and grieve properly.

There is a plethora of research to support the fact that grieving a pet can be as impactful as the loss of a human loved one, if not more. There is also plenty of research indicating that pets, particularly dogs, have a therapeutic effect on people and for some people struggling with mental health issues, pets are often the one thing that gets a person out of bed each morning.

In 1985, Dr. Kenneth Doka coined the term “disenfranchised grief” while researching a type of grief that is not socially accepted or openly acknowledged. Furthermore, the griever is discouraged from mourning publicly. Examples include maternal bereavement, elective abortion, perinatal loss, loss of a loved one who is not related by blood, and loss of a same-sex partner. The loss of a pet certainly meets the criteria for disenfranchised grief.

Perhaps one of the reasons humans sometimes grieve the loss of a dog more than the loss of a human is because the unconditional love from a dog cannot be matched by the often very conditional love from humans. A dog will love you no matter what.

They don’t care what you weigh or if you have a disability of some sort. They don’t care what your sexual orientation or gender identity is. They don’t care what you look like or how much money you have. They don’t care about a lot of meaningless things that humans place a lot of importance on. I have heard many clients tell me that their dog saved their life in many different ways. I know my dog saved mine.

A few years ago, a friend of mine lost her beloved dog. It was a sudden and traumatic injury that left her dog with little to no options that would offer him any sort of quality of life. She loved this dog more than her own life and had to make the most difficult and selfless decision to put him to sleep because she knew that while surgery would keep him around longer for her, his quality of life would be nearly nonexistent.

Afterward, while describing what he meant to her she called him her “heart dog.” Heart dog. Those two words became my description for my dearly beloved dog as well, who passed a few years after hers.

I have had dogs all my life. I grew up with a mother who had a unique love for animals and this respect for animals and nature was instilled in me at an early age. I have always had a special connection with nonhuman creatures and my partner recognized early in our relationship that there would always be an animal of some sort in our lives.

When I was in my twenties, I adopted a dog from the SPCA, whom I named Atticus. I had no business adopting a dog during this time; I was putting myself through school and could barely take care of myself, much less a dog. But I had recently gone through a very traumatic breakup and the only thing that felt right was to adopt a dog. It was the best bad decision I ever made.

In spite of the fact that I was a walking train wreck, we made it work. He was fed, taken care of, went to the vet regularly, got heartworm and flea prevention, and most importantly he was the love of my life. He was with me for thirteen years and saw me through a time period in my life when I was not the best version of myself.

He loved me all the way up until graduate school which was when his health started to fail him. On an overcast day in 2015, he died in my arms on our back porch and for a brief second, the moment his heart stopped, the sun appeared briefly from behind the clouds. He was my heart dog. My copilot. My grief was huge but I was luckier than most.

When Atticus died, I was doing my student clinical internship and was surrounded by therapists, and most of them had pets. I was encouraged to take the week off and I did. Both of my supervisors and all of my cohorts checked in on me frequently. My best friend brought me quiche and a jar of chamomile lavender tea so I would be able to eat even though I had no desire to and a tea made of calming and soothing herbs to help me sleep.

The weekend before Atticus died, we had a group of people over to say goodbye to him. Looking at all those people in my living room who were there to support me and my dog meant the world to me. All of this helped me immensely in my grief. I don’t know if I could have healed without this kind of support and understanding. While trauma is a major part of the grief cycle, I can honestly say that I was able to process and move through mine more easily than I might have if I had not been supported in this way.

Research has also shown that not being allowed to grieve properly can lead to anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder. Oftentimes people don’t mean to be insensitive. Some people don’t understand this unique love for other animals.

Years ago, I remember my (now former) boss commenting to me under her breath when another coworker went home early because her iguana died that “it’s just a lizard.” Likewise, some people will encourage others who are grieving to move on because it is “just a dog.” Or worse, people will encourage the grieving person to get another pet. Unfortunately, this happened to me more than once before I had even picked up my dog’s ashes.

There are many ways to support someone who has lost a pet. Overall, support them the way you would if they were experiencing any other sort of major loss. Bring them casseroles, ask them what they need, get them sympathy cards. Honor their grief the way you would if they lost a parent, a friend, or a spouse.

There are things you should avoid doing as well. Here are some tips:

1) Do not ask them when they are getting another pet or try to push them into getting another one. They will be ready in their own time or maybe they will never be ready again. Regardless, it is not for you to push this agenda on them. When a person is grieving a pet, they have lost a loved one. To pester them about getting another pet is basically treating their loss like the loss of a kitchen appliance that needs to be replaced.

2) Do not tell them when to move on. We don’t get to dictate the timeline for someone else’s grief.

3) Do not tell them what you think they should have done differently. This is not the time to tell them about an alternative medicine or surgery that you think they should have tried instead of what they chose to do in the best interest of their pet. People want their pets to live forever, no matter how unrealistic that desire is. When a person chooses to put a pet to sleep, they are breaking their own heart to make the most loving and selfless choice a person can make.

4) And for the love of all things good in life, never tell someone it’s just a pet.

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