Why is Losing a Pet So Hard? Disenfranchised Grief

(This post was previously posted on thedailyjuniorblog.com)

Why is losing a pet so hard?

For many of us, pets are family. They love us unconditionally. Grief is a normal response. But sometimes loss of a pet involves disenfranchised grief, a loss that is not acknowledged by society.

We must often grieve our pets in secret.

Because a pet is not a human being, sometimes the feelings associated with the loss of a pet may not be validated by others as genuine grief. The profound grief experienced by the adult or child who loses a pet may be undervalued and trivialized with such expressions as “come on, it’s just a dog”.

Because society may not recognize the death as a loss, the person who loses a pet may not have the same degree of support or may not be able to talk openly about what they are feeling. Grief processing occurs in a social context. We need rituals to work through it. The rituals we do to help grief may not be available to us when it is disenfranchised.

Ambiguity makes grief even more complicated. When we grieve, we are already confused and overwhelmed . An ambiguous death lacks clarity of what exactly has been lost. A question may exist on whether a real loss has occurred. Is a pet a significant death? Most of us who love a pet certainly think so. When uncertain how to respond to someone losing a pet, a person may do nothing, or avoid the topic.

The person who grieves a pet can feel invisible. This can result in more intense emotional reactions and can actually increase the reaction to the loss. With disenfranchised grief there may not be a socially recognized way to express the deep feelings of loss. The grief related to loss of a pet may not be viewed by otheprs as valid.

As a result the person is not able to freely express the grief or perform the comforting rituals needed to process grief. Feelings related to the loss can not be fully processed. The old loss may then be experienced with each future loss.Disenfranchised grief may lie hidden for years only to be triggered by later losses.

Even less valued may be the loss experienced by a child who has had to relinquish a cherished pet through divorce or adult choice. Children who are deeply attached to a pet can lose that pet due to reasons other than the death of the pet. The child and pet can be separated due to divorce, financial difficulties, or parental relinquishment of the pet for reasons a child (or anyone) may not understand.

The emotional toll of relinquishing a pet is significant for both the person and the animal. Unfortunately it is an all too common event in today’s society. It hurts to lose a pet, no matter the reason.

My dog Dolly was a small white ball of fluff that wiggled and smiled at me as my father presented her to me somewhere around my sixth birthday. She was the first dog of my childhood and I loved her.

I talked to her, planned my dreams with her, and confided in her when there was no on else with time or inclination to listen to me.

One bright ,crisp,autumn day I hurried home from school, with my latchkey in my hand to let myself into our small apartment. I stood eagerly waiting for the uncontrolled bliss and enthusiasm of Dolly’s usual welcome home greeting. In the lonely after school and summer days of my childhood, Dolly was what I lived for, my soul mate.

But that day, my Mother came to the door instead. Dolly was gone. She had been taken to a shelter by my father at my mother’s direction for reasons I didn’t understand then, and never would understand.

But I understood that my heart was broken. I grieved Dolly’s loss silently and alone, deep in my heart. My parents never acknowledged the significance of the loss. After all, Dolly was “only a dog.”But I never stopped missing Dolly. I never stopped loving her. It took many years before I was able to successfully grieve other losses, including the death of my father when I was fourteen years old.

The loss experienced when a beloved pet is relinquished can be profound .Sometimes a child whose pet is discarded by parents feels powerless to protect their pet. When a family companion is lost, the impact of the entire dynamic of the decision to the family members that are attached to the pet to them should be considered and addressed. The depth of attachment to the pet is an indication of the degree of grief processing and support needed from others.

It’s hard to endure the loss of a pet alone.

Validating pet loss as real grief is key to helping others move through the grieving process. Reaching out for support through a Pet Grief program or support person or group can help us work through the grief process and help us eventually honor our pets by remembering them with joy.

The photo above is The Angel of Grief Statue at Stanford University. The original sculpture is in Italy, photo credit to: Wikipedia,Creative Commons

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