I have always grown up with dogs, and as heart wrenching as it is to lose a pet, I never fully understood the loss until I held my dog Stella Blue during her last breaths. That loss, still hurts. Even nearly 11 years later. Stella Blue was my first baby girl and no doubt her spirit lives on strong in the daughter I birthed a year after Stellie’s death. Friends speak of the silence immediately following the death of a pet. Like the quiet of the house becomes deafening. No barking, howling, meows. It’s quiet. It’s strange. And it hurts.
Scientists now know that grief associated with pet loss is specific. It can be as intense as losing a loved one and studies have shown that the loss of a pet fills the full range of loss as that of a human. But there are also particulars that can make the grieving process all that more intense. Sandra Barker, Director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth
University has co-authored several studies on grief and pet loss. Her own experience researching the topic has taught her that part of the process that is so difficult is that the loss of a pet can be a surprise and happen very quickly. PEople also tend to feel shame that they are grieving more for their pet than they may be for a sibling or parent. She says, “when they realize the difference is the pet gave them constant companionship, and there was total dependency, then they start to realize that’s why they’re grieving so intensely.” It is the unconditional love and nonjudgmental relationships we have with pets that can make the loss feel so devastating. They are simply happy to see us. They are also 100% dependent upon us. This dependency can leave owners asking themselves the tough questions. Like, I should have known they were sick sooner. Maybe there was more I could have done. I could have been home more.
There is also the complication that many people, pet owners included will respond to the death of a pet as being replaceable. Why don’t you just adopt another dog? Or get another one now, before they die. It will make the grieving less terrible. I’ve tried that. I’m not sure it did. But it’s unlikely that someone would say any of these things to you if you shared about the loss of your mom, or sister. People are thought of as irreplaceable. The thing is, pets should be too.
For more on PET LOSS listen to JOY IS NOW Episode 33 with Leigh Cypres