Pet Loss: “One of the Family!” By Dr. Bill Webster

Marian was devastated by the loss of her husband Bob 2 years ago. She wondered if she would even survive the loss, but she persevered, worked through her grief and was at the point where she was beginning to rediscover herself, reconcile her loss and reconstruct her life.

Then, this past summer, another family member got sick. In spite of heroic treatment with constant care and attention, she died.

No, it was not a child, parent, sibling or relative. Marian lost her cat.

For those who have never had a companion animal, pet loss is often hard to understand. “After all,” many say, “it was just a cat … or a dog, bunny rabbit, hamster, snake, or bird.” Pet loss is often overlooked by society, so when an animal dies, owners grieve alone because they are afraid that they will be ridiculed, or thought to be silly, because, after all it is “only a pet”.

But for Marian, Pebbles was “one of the family”. This loss has been just as devastating to her as the death of her husband, probably complicated by the fact that she was “their” cat, and Pebbles death cuts one more string that connected her to Bob. Perhaps the loss of an animal is made more difficult because there is a lack of understanding of how significant this relationship can be, leading to little sympathy from those around.

In fact, within a week of Pebbles death, a neighbor showed up at the door with a new kitten for Marian, which she politely refused to accept, still too hurt from her loss to be able to invest in another relationship. She managed a wry smile as she told me about it. “Too bad they didn’t bring over some younger guy to replace BOB when he died”, she retorted, and the chuckle we shared helped put things in perspective.

Stores in the UK are increasingly responding to the growing trend of the “humanization” of pets by providing accessories and products beyond leads and water bowls. A buyer for a major national chain recently stated that the response to the store’s new pet boutique has been “absolutely phenomenal”. Animal hospitals and pet cemeteries are also growing...further evidence of the growing understanding of the significance our pets play in our lives.

So, not surprisingly, grief counselors for pet loss are emerging. The loss of any relationship can cause intense pain, and even if others do not understand, a pet is often a significant and constant part of your life. Pebbles provided Marian a source of comfort and companionship, unconditional love and acceptance, and even fun and joy after Bob’s death. Little wonder she was devastated by the loss of that relationship.

While there are many common factors in grief over any relationship, there are issues that are unique to the situation that often trouble the grieving pet lover.

A major issue is guilt, especially in those frequent situations where the pet owner had to decide to euthanize their pet, or when a veterinarian's treatment was unsuccessful. In Marian’s case, she spent an extraordinary amount on treatments hoping to give her cat a few extra years of life and more time with her cat.

Although a Vet may be the best judge of physical condition, you are the best judge of  your pet’s quality of life.  Marian courageously insisted on being with Pebbles to the end, and seeing that she died peacefully and without pain. 

Then, what to do next? As with a human death, there are many options. Some alternatives are to leave the pet with the vet for disposition;  bury the animal at home or in a pet cemetery; cremate and then take time to decide what final placement will provide the most comfort to  you. In addition, additional options exist for urns, jewelry, etc.  

Coming home to an empty house can hit you with a myriad of emotions: sadness that this constant companion who had provided a connection to her beloved Bob was gone; anger that the treatments the vet had promised would give Pebbles a year or two of life had not worked and had caused 6 months of suffering; guilt over the fact that even though she knew it was “the right thing to do”, that SHE had made the decision, that SHE had ended her cat's life; and above all, the loneliness of missing the comfort and companionship she had clung to so desperately after Bob died.

 Many people get much love and delight from their beloved pets in life, and like any significant relationship, they grieve deeply for them when they are gone. But more than that, people often make pets living symbols of their inner feelings: for some, symbols of their own innocence and purest feelings and the need to care, so when that pet dies, a treasured part of the person also dies.

Much of the advice to help people through their grief is exactly the same  as what is offered when a human companion dies. Regardless, grief is probably the most confusing, frustrating and emotional thing that  a person can experience. It is even more so for bereaved pet owners, when society in general does not give them “permission” to grieve openly. Consequently, they often feel isolated and alone. It is known as disenfranchised grief. Luckily, more and more resources are becoming available to help the bereaved pet owner realize that they are NOT alone and that what they are feeling is entirely normal.

  As Helen Keller once succinctly put it: “What we have once enjoyed we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us.”