The loss of a pet can be akin to losing a close human loved one. However, because a pet’s life is much shorter than a human’s, it is inevitable that pet owners will face this loss at some stage, and often multiple times, during our lives.
We had a chat to Michael O’Donoghue, founder of grief support group Pets and People, to gain a better understanding of pet loss.
What makes our relationship with our pet so special?
Michael puts it perfectly when he says that a pet’s love is unconditional and it’s rare to receive that from any human being.
“Aside from unconditional love, we feel like heroes because our pet is dependent on us. We are responsible for their happiness and wellbeing; we feed them, walk them, clean up after them, teach them tricks, cuddle with them, and on and on the list goes.
“Pets have a way of bringing out our core human nature of being loving and responsible.
Why do we feel the loss of a pet so deeply?
Given the special bond we have with our pet it’s no surprise then that we also feel their loss so deeply.
Michael explains that our relationship with our pet is individual and it can be difficult for others to understand the loss we feel. This can leave owners feeling isolated in their time of grief.
“It can be easy to dismiss the loss of a pet because they aren’t human and can be easily replaced. However, this attitude doesn’t recognise the deep hole that losing a pet can leave and can be counterproductive to the grieving process.
“Often people express the feeling of being judged when they communicate about the loss of their pet which can make it difficult to open up and move forward.
“For some people their pet is their sole companion which can make it particularly difficult to be alone with no one to comfort and understand what they are going through.
How do pet owners grieve?
Michael quotes the Centre for Grief Education when he says that the intensity of grief felt after the loss of a pet is dependent on the degree of attachment, the type of relationship, the circumstances of the death, the personality and the social support of the person suffering the loss.
“Reactions to grief can include anxiety, fear, sadness, anger and guilt. People can also experience physical manifestations such as sleep disturbances, breathlessness or tightness in the chest.
“In severe cases people can have extreme responses such as hyperactivity, inability to concentrate or social withdrawal. These are only some of the ways that grief is experienced and it’s important to note that everyone will have their own individual response to losing a pet.
While grief is individual to each person Michael says there is a general set of stages we go through when suffering a loss.
He refers to the Kubler-Ross model’s five stages of grief which include denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. He says that people experience all five stages differently and can often go through the stages only to then begin the process again.
How can you help someone who is grieving a loss?
There are a range of grief counsellors and support groups available to help people coming to terms with the loss of a pet. This includes Beyond Blue and Lifeline, which are free phone counselling services, and also Pets and People’s 24/7 hotline which is initially a free call and then transfer to a paid service connecting owners with experienced pet counsellors in their region.
Michael says that as a friend the best thing you can do is listen and provide non-judgemental support.
“Often people just need to know they are loved when going through a loss. Checking in on a loved one, cooking them a meal or giving a heart-felt sympathy card are all ways to show you care.
“We often find that when someone shifts their focus from mourning a loss to honouring a life this is the first step to acceptance. Encouraging your loved one to hold a memorial service, frame some photos or write down their memories of their pet can help to shift their focus.
“Most importantly, it’s best to read the needs of the individual. If they need time, give it to them but make sure they know you are there when they are ready for support,” he said.