Pet Bereavement: When Playing Dead Is No Longer A Game

May 21, 2021

I’m going to be real with you: I like animals more than I like humans. I’ve become somewhat desensitized to watching humans die on the silver screen but when it comes to animals, it’s a whole different ball game. I’ve never got over that scene in Bambi which traumatized me as a child. I’ve never seen Marley & Me because from what I’ve heard, I just know I’ll fall to pieces so I’m saving myself the heartache. I understand I’m not the only one who becomes a snotty, blubbering wreck because there’s a whole website built to help avoid movies and TV shows where the animal dies – if you’re wondering.


If you're lucky enough to own a pet, like all pleasures in life, it's balanced out with some sort of pain. The pain I'm talking about is the inevitable experience of loss. A fact I can no longer hide from as my two precious pooches are growing old, and each (much more frequent) vet visit is a reminder that our time left together is limited. I’m not going to lie, it’s a tough pill to swallow, and although nothing is going to prepare me for the day I return home and no longer hear the pitter-patter of paws running to greet me, or I sit down and a ball of fluff doesn’t dump itself on my lap, or I'll casually say ‘walk’ or ‘cheese’ without a frantic mix of wagging tails and pleading eyes at my feet, I’m mentally trying to come to terms with it.


With the unavoidable drawing closer, I’ve been seeking out advice, as it seems the grief that follows the loss of a beloved pet is not spoken about nearly as often as it should. In fact, countless studies show that grieving a pet can be just as intense and painful (and sometimes even more so) as grieving another family member. Still, due to 'disenfranchised grief' – the inability to understand how the loss of a pet could affect someone so deeply, – society doesn’t allow people the time and space to openly grieve the loss of their pets in the same way it allows us to mourn the loss of a human. 


While animals are widely accepted as part of the family, there’s an overwhelming misconception that we’re not supposed to feel such heartbreak over a four-legged friend. If you’re a pet owner, you know that they’re not ‘just a cat’ or ‘just a dog’, they are a beloved member of the crew. They improve our mental health and general wellbeing. They provide company for the lonely and comfort for the distressed. If you think about it, you see your furbabies every single day – probably more than you see any other human. So, if you’re in the midst of grieving your animal friend, I’m going to share the biggest takeaways I’ve found in the hope that it will make you feel much less alone.


Own your grief by allowing yourself to feel all the emotions


Our relationship with our pets is deep and complex. It’s not so obvious from the outside, but it’s built on fleeting, joyous moments that transform into something rich and meaningful. Although the grief associated with losing a pet is one that is not acknowledged broadly, it is completely justified. Even if people don't understand the depth of feeling you had for your pet, your feelings are valid and so you should never feel guilty or ashamed about grieving for an animal friend. 


In the wake of the losing of a pet, coming to terms with your emotions can be quite the ride because you may feel as though you need to justify the depth of your grief, but grief is a journey that is highly personal and individualistic. It’s painful and exhausting. It’s also a journey that doesn’t have a time limit. It’s a token of how much you loved, and therefore the agony of loss. So, if you feel like sobbing over a dead goldfish, let those tears trickle. People might think you’re crazy, but who are they to invalidate such an attachment? Your grief is truly rational so you should feel your emotions without shame or judgment.


If we’re being completely honest here, many humans are just not that great. Our pets on the other hand dote on us left, right, and center. For many animals, their humans become their whole world and they miss us when we’re not home. They shower us with unconditional love and loyalty, and they provide joy and laughter with moments that could make your heart melt. All of these things are rare to find in our fellow man, so once we’ve found it within our pets, it’s a tough thing to lose.


In essence, if you sadly lose your animal companion, you should do whatever you need to commemorate your pet. Want a backyard funeral for Milo? Go for it. Fancy keeping Tilly’s ashes in a locket around your neck? Be my guest. Maybe you’d like a life-size painting of Tabby for the hallway? Knock yourself out. You want to immortalize Rocky with taxidermy? Hey, who am I to tell you not to?  


Remember it’s not your fault


Much like grieving a human, the stages of grief that follow the loss of a pet come in waves. It sets off all sorts of painful and difficult emotions; you can experience denial, guilt, depression, and eventually acceptance and resolution. When we say our last goodbyes to our pets, we don’t just lose a companion, we lose someone who was our ‘responsibility’. Someone that kept us active, social, and for some, they provide a sense of meaning and purpose.


Euthanising a pet is one of the toughest decisions we are made to make. We hold the life-or-death decision in our hands, and we do not have the privilege of asking our companions what they want. If our pets are dealing with health complications, relieving them of their pain is often the kindest thing we can do, but that doesn’t take away the anguish of doing so. The responsibility and guilt that come with this decision can be crushing. On top of that, vet's rates can be extortionate and if your pet is battling with numerous health issues, there may come a time when you can no longer afford the vet expenses.


When we lose a loved one, we can be plagued with ‘what-if’ scenarios and pets are no exception. What if I’d noticed the dog was ill sooner? What if I let the rabbits live indoors? What if I’d forked out that extra few thousand in vet fees? Part of the grieving journey is owning your emotions. If you’re constantly racked with guilt, it’s going to be much harder to move on. Well, unless it was you who ran over the cat, then by all means, beat yourself up about it.


To lie or not to lie


Losing a pet may well be your children’s first experience of death and your first opportunity to teach them about coping with the grief and pain that inescapably accompanies the joy of loving another living creature. Let’s be frank: this is going to be pretty uncomfortable. No one wants to be the parent who makes their kid aware of the concept of mortality. 


For many parents, they often think the best course of action is to create false truths. You know the classics, ‘Misty ran away’, ‘Coco has gone to live on the farm with the rest of the guinea pigs’, and so on. You’ll have to navigate the inquisitive questions like, ‘When grandad dies, will we flush him down the toilet too?’. For other parents, they believe the best way they can protect their children from heartache is to dash to the local pet store for an identical Sooty. Despite the fact that explaining the death of a pet is going to be tricky and tough, use the opportunity to be honest, as your children could end up feeling hurt and betrayed when they finally learn the truth.


You may have guessed that losing a pet can be traumatic for children and they may feel angry and blame themselves (or you) for the pet’s death. They may feel scared that other animals or people they love might also leave them. Be patient, gentle, and tender in your approach when explaining the loss of their animal friend. We’ve all heard ‘they went to sleep forever,’ but be mindful that you’re not leaving your kid feeling even more confused and frightened. Reassure them that they were not responsible for the death of their pet and give them time to come to terms with the loss of their companion. 


Much like us adults, children’s grief will be unique to the individual, and therefore they’ll have their own ways to deal with the death. For some, the prospect of a new puppy will fill the void instantly – fickle, I know! For others, they may need more time to move on from their beloved furry friend before even thinking about welcoming a new one. By being honest with your kids about the loss of your pet, together your family will learn some important lessons about grief, and when the time is right, perhaps you might be willing to open your hearts to another animal companion.


Even though it can’t be scientifically proven, I believe that animals suffer from grief just like the rest of us. If you have a pet whose behavior has changed due to the loss of another, you should ask your vet for advice. If you’re interested in how other animals react to the loss of their own, check out ‘Are Animals More Like Us Than We Think’.


If you're finding you need to keep on top of your pets’ needs, you can store all their details on your myFRP account. You can keep track of their vet’s contact information and appointments, pet licenses and registrations, tag expiration dates, microchip details, and if applicable, their previous owner’s information. You'll find this in the Home Network section of the tool. 

Emily Davies

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