My aunt was a cat lover who lived with us up to the time when I was six years old. She welcomed in all the strays and tended to them in the spare room downstairs or on the enclosed porch. I do not quite remember grieving over a pet at that early age, probably because – earlier at the age of three – I had had a fit and fought for days after witnessing a stray dog kill a baby chick. After that incident, my family became overly protective of me.
Later, when my gray tabby cat died, some people made fun of me when I became too sick with sorrow to attend school for a while, even though I was a good student and did not like missing school. I had other pets in my life during the following decades, but I could neither forget my Smoky nor the disappointment I felt for being misunderstood.
When a human passes away, grieving is understood and even expected. Yet, there is little or no understanding of the sorrow we feel when our pet – to what we feel as close as or even closer than a family member – dies or has to be put away.
For many people, a pet is not just a pet, but an extension of the person, answering our need of being needed. Our pets provide us with playful companionship, and through their special sensory abilities, they understand and commiserate with our struggles and challenges in life. Pets are therapists in their own right because they deal with us on a one-to-one basis, and in addition, they are the best medicine for the elderly. Taking all this into account, when the bond with a pet is broken in such a sad way as death, is not it normal to fall apart and mourn?
In the writing site, I belong to, there are many animal lovers who sometimes lose their pets. When that happens, the other members listened to the deceased pet’s owner, empathize, and then, validate his or her grief. In such a case, or in any other kind of mourning, validation of grief is the most important aid one can give to a friend. Suggesting to the friend to get rest and to take it easy for a while is the next step in the right direction of guiding him to learn to live life without his pet.
When it comes to grieving over pets, children are the most vulnerable. Hiding a pet’s disappearance with the hope that the child will forget is the worst thing adults can do since children can carry inside themselves many hidden sorrows that may taint their lives for a very long time. If a pet is terminally ill and it has to be put away, letting the child know of the pet’s condition ahead of time is the correct thing to do. When children feel and express their sadness publicly in a support setting, they can accept future losses better.
When a child loses a pet, it is not a good idea to force another pet on him immediately, unless he requests for it. Otherwise, he may grow up feeling that a loss from a death is not meaningful, and everyone is replaceable including himself.
If you are the friend of a pet owner who pet has died, send a card or flowers to validate your friend’s feelings, and then, spend more time with him. Never ever say that the pet that was was only a pet and he can get another one just like the pet he lost. Instead, let him know you are there for him, he should feel like talking. Encourage him to attend to his personal everyday care. If you hear or know of a pet-loss support group in your area, encourage your friend to attend. If there is one place where misery loves company, it is in such a group.
May you and your pets live a long and happy life.