Pet Loss: Grief
When a person suffers a significant loss they experience an emotional response called grief. Expressions of grief can include sadness, sorrow, fatigue, depression, relief, shock, anger, guilt and anxiety. (Barbato & Irwin, 1992)
Pets have increasingly become very important to individuals and families. More than 85% of pet owners regard their pets to be full members of their family. In fact, in a national survey 57% of respondents stated that if stranded on a desert island with only one companion, they would choose their family pet. With this in mind, it is not surprising that 85% of persons report grief symptoms at the death of a pet and one-third have continuing grief at six months. (Wrobel & Dye, 2003) Grieving for a pet has some unique challenges. There is a lack of socially acceptable means for mourning a pet. For many, an owner’s reaction to the death of a pet is seen as childish, stupid, and even unstable. There is little acceptance of bereavement in these situation; few people consider it necessary or appropriate. It makes it difficult for owner to publically grieve, impeding the mourning process.
Although not universally accepted many describe grief as occurring in phases.
In denial we try to deny the reality of the loss. Many have the feeling that this is all just a dream, one which I will soon wake up from. Others may feel overwhelmed, as if life is meaningless or just numb out their feelings. Denial can be seen to have a function. It initially helps to slow the pace and intensity of the emotions of grief.
Once our minds have accepted somewhat the loss emotions of anger occur. This is a necessary stage of grieving. According to Kubler-Ross, anger provides a temporary structure, a bridge, or a connection in our minds. This anger maybe directed towards the Veterinarian, the Veterinary profession in general, another family member or even directed inwards. This inward anger can takes the form of guilt.
Before the loss, many strike bargains usually with a higher power. “If you make thing better I will endeavor to do good deeds.” After the loss we can use guilt common in bargaining.
"Did I do the right thing"?
"Should I have waited longer"?
"Should I have done more testing"?
"What if I had done this or that"?
The “if onlys” cause us to find fault in ourselves and what we “think” we could have done. Many bargain to try not to feel the pain of loss.
One can see how these “if only” questions arise more often when dealing with the decisions to euthanize a pet. Owners are the only ones who are able to make these difficult final decisions thus are the focus of their own “if only” guilty feelings. Since resources for medical and hospice care for pets is much more limited and it is difficult for most to spend thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars more “what if” questions arise.
A significant loss is very depressing so it is normal and appropriate. Many withdraw from life, have intense sadness, continue to feel guilt, cry and can have physical illness.
This phase is about accepting the reality of our new status in life. That our new reality is that our loved pet is not coming back. We may never like this new reality, but we have accepted it. We can never replace our loss, but we can make new connections.
Phases of grief do not necessarily follow in exact order and some weave in and out of phases. Others may find themselves stuck in one phase, not progressing to the final phase acceptance. These individuals might find help within the psychotherapeutic community of services.
Saiki Veterinary Mobile Care Resource for pet loss and grief. Please check the bottom of this linked page for resources.
Dr. Saiki is a mobile house call veterinarian who has provided in-home loving pet euthanasia since 2003. As a member of the Am. Ass. of Human Animal Bond Veterinarians she understands the emotions surrounding pet loss, the grieving process and how memorials are a benefits to this process. If you would like to place an online pet memorial on her website www.lovingathomepeteuthanasial.com please call her at 408-399-5353.