There is so much that people forget about pet loss. When we’re young and we lose a pet we hear, “Oh, don’t feel bad. You can get another one!” or “That’s okay. It was just a pet. It’s not like you lost your grandfather died.”
Society does a really crappy bitch job of acknowledging the pain and heartbreak of pet loss and there are a few reasons for that: 1) There’s this spoken/unspoken notion that the life of an animal is less valuable than the life of a human.
We see it outright from the law, but we also see it in subtler ways. Because animals can’t communicate through talking the way humans do, it’s harder for society to categorize our bonds with our pets as legitimate “relationships.” For some reason, “relationships” are reserved for human-to-human interactions (even though you might feel infinitely more connected to your black lab than you do your Aunt Margie).
2) Some people assume that animals are interchangeable or easily replaced. Aside from tortoises and some species of birds, most pets come into and leave our lives while we’re still meandering around on the planet.
Couple that with the ever-present campaign for pet adoption and you’ve got a recipe for, “Pet death.” Just get a new one! There’s plenty more where that came from!
This sort of thinking fails to recognize that the relationships we form with our pets are as unique and individual as the relationships we form with other humans.
Pets have personalities, habits and traits that vary not only from species to species but also pet to pet. Mine absolutely do! 3)Another perspective is that feeling “too much grief” for the relationship you have with a pet is “crazy,” “weird,” or “abnormal.” Society likes it when we keep most if not all of our relationships at “arm’s length.”
People who grieve for their pet beyond a month or so (or whatever the invisible “standard” is these days) are lumped into the “crazy cat lady” category where their love for their pet is skewed as psychosis, which isolates grievers and shames the totally normal relationship they have with their now-deceased pet. This is a dangerous combination of two huge myths of griefsEd’s: “There’s a timeline for grief,” and “If you’re going to grieve, grieve alone.” No such thing! It’s not fair that society tells us to adopt, name, snuggle, feed, walk, train, sleep with, dress up, take pictures of, and travel with a pet and then forget about it and get a new one immediately after it dies. That’s just not how grief works. So if you’re struggling to comprehend a friend’s grief over losing a pet or looking to help someone you love understand your grief over a pet’s death, here are six legitimate reasons why losing a pet can be a devastating, grief-inducing, and all around-heartbreaking loss:
1) Pets are a part of our every day routine. Pets are with us every single day. They are a part of our routines and regular activities like feeding them, taking them out, playing with them, and sleeping with them are what every day normal looks like for us. It’s really jarring when that routine and normalcy is upset. All of a sudden there’s no one to feed. There’s no one to take out. There’s no one to play with. And there’s no one sleeping beside us. A lot of articles I read on pet loss noted people spend more time with their pets than their coworkers, their siblings, and their roommates. It’s no wonder that we grieve when a pet dies. 2) Pets give us a reason to get going. Pets are dependent and need us in order to live. Their dependency on us gives us something outside of ourselves to care for, so when they die, not only do those tasks stop, but that feeling of “doing for” something outside of ourselves stops too. And that’s really hard. It’s so common to frame ourselves as our pet’s parent and often a “caretaking identity” is a major part of how we see ourselves. When a pet dies, it’s really easy to slip into this feeling of, “Well now nothing is dependent on me. Who or what am I living for?” The death of a pet can absolutely leave us with a sense of purposelessness. 3) We have unique and special relationships with our pets. Just like different pieces of ourselves are brought out in different human relationships, different pieces of ourselves are brought out in different animal relationships. Each animal we have a relationship with is different than the next.
Some are more vocal, some want to be petted, some are cheerful, some are couch potatoes, some are your best friend, and some want nothing to do with you! Our pet’s traits and behaviors bring out a myriad of traits and behaviors in us and that’s pretty special. Their personalities have a lasting impact on us.
4) Pets have seen us at our best and our worst and are with us through our milestones. My Pets have seen me at my worst and so disgusting and sick yet they still loved me. Especially if they’re older, our pets have seen us through a lot of crap.
They’re not always the main focus of our milestones, but they’re there on the periphery, going through it with us always.
They let us deck them out with flower collars and walk the aisle to say “I do,” they pose for baby announcements and holiday photos, and they sit with us and stay with us through our personal griefs and losses — death, divorce, diagnosis, etc. Pets don’t question our joy, our celebration, or our grief. They continue to love us through it. And for so many of us, our pets are a strong constant in a life that’s always changing. 5) Pets are a source of unconditional love. Humans judge. This is it, folks. The bottom line. Losing unconditional love is the biggest reason we grieve when our pets die. We loved a wonderful, cuddly, silly, pudgy, adorable, loud, irritating, lap-sitting, tiny, spirited animal through their life and that animal, to the best of its ability, loved us right on back. Compromised human relationships (drama, estrangement, pettiness over money, lying, cheating, etc.) don’t exist in this human-animal dynamic… so what’s left? Endless devotion and love —the best of ourselves we can offer in each moment — from both sides. And losing the animal side of the equation can feel like an instant, isolating cutoff from a major source of unconditional love.
We are the majority not the minority and don’t feel ashamed or bad for loving so deeply and hiring so much. It’s all normal!