Based on the book Saying Goodbye to Your Angel Animals
Although it had been a week since Kathleen McBride’s dog Tyler died, she couldn’t stop mourning. Unbidden tears came while she worked at her desk. Her boss, a young woman, zinged Kathleen with the words: "I thought you would be over that dog by now."
The woman’s callous remark left Kathleen speechless. She says, "I couldn’t begin to explain to her the enormity of my loss, so I didn’t even try." If it hadn’t been for the sensitivity of coworkers who offered their condolences, Kathleen would have buried her grief. And unresolved grief can lead to serious health problems later, even long-term physical or emotional illness.
With 63 percent of U.S. households having a pet, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association Inc.’s 2005-2006 National Pet Owners Survey, and 83 percent of pet lovers calling themselves their pet’s mommy or daddy, Americans have firmly entered the era of pets as members of the family. After pets die, people mourn them with an intensity that is similar to their feelings over a human’s death. Psychology Today’s website section on bereavement says, "The death of a pet will often mean the loss of a cherished family member and can trigger great sorrow. Other people may find it hard to understand such a reaction in what they may see as the loss of just an animal and they may, therefore, be less understanding of your grief."
In researching and writing Saying Goodbye to Your Angel Animals, we reviewed thousands of letters and stories we have received since founding the Angel Animals Network in 1996. We found that when friends, family, coworkers or members of a person’s church are dismissive or insensitive about the loss of a pet, the grieving person tends to withdraw. She then loses the comfort and release that talking about feelings would have provided for what may be one of her most painful life experiences.
Buried or unprocessed grief festers within a person and resurfaces as much as a year or more after the loss of a pet or human. If normal feelings associated with grief are repressed, the bereaved person can have a complicated grief reaction leading to clinical depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colo. In When Your Pet Dies (Companion Press 2004), he distinguishes between normal grief and clinical depression over pet loss. Wolfelt says that the person who has slipped into clinical depression no longer accepts support and does not directly express anger. These behaviors can result from being rebuffed or ignored upon turning to others for consolation.
How to help someone whose pet has died
Acknowledge: Let the grieving person know that you understand this is a deep and real loss.
Listen: Encourage a grieving friend to talk and remember. Don’t shy away from helping her recall memories of the final moments. She may have dreams of the animal saying good-bye or a lingering sense of the animal’s presence. She may believe she’ll meet her animal companion in heaven. These are common comments bereaved people make. Just listen.
Be Nonjudgmental: The bereaved person may have had to euthanize the animal
or make other extremely difficult decisions. Now isn’t the time for second-guessing
or raining "shoulds" on a person who may already be filled with
guilt and regrets.
Accept: Let the grieving person know that whatever feelings she has experienced before, during, or after her pet’s death are natural aspects of grieving.
Understand That People Grieve Differently: Some mourn longer or more frequently.
Some express their emotions through tears. Others don’t. Men and women grieve
differently. A survey by the University of Kentucky showed that men’s bereavement
takes longer, is less noticeable, and is processed by acting and thinking
rather than crying and talking about feelings, as women tend to do. ("How Men Grieve," by
Colin Allen, Psychology Today, September 12, 2002).
Honor the Animal’s Life: Help the bereaved person hold a candlelight or memorial service for her pet and share photos and memories with other friends and family members who loved the animal.
After an animal dies, buried grief becomes the poisonous air that a bereaved person continues to breathe. So when someone says, "My dog/cat/rabbit/horse died…" offer genuine consolation and understanding. The death of an animal companion probably means the loss of that person’s greatest source for feeling loved unconditionally.