Bereavement Article

 

Pet Bereavement

  
 

When I offered to write this article for the Pets in Memoriam website I was aware of how it would touch me as a pet owner and an animal lover. I have always kept pets from a young age. This ranged from hamsters and rabbits to terrapins and goldfish as a child, and in adulthood to owning dogs and cats. They form some of the strongest emotional bonds that I have encountered and I would find it hard to imagine not being able experience the joy and treasured memories that being an animal lover brings.

AcerI believe that it wouldn’t be possible to benefit from such enjoyment and attachment without there being another aspect to being a pet owner which is the very painful process of grief experienced when losing the pet through death or other causes. It is an intrinsic aspect of human nature to experience grief alongside many other feelings when relating to loss. The loss of a pet will naturally generate a very powerful reaction within an animal or pet owner, just as powerful as we may experience in other areas of loss.
  

 

Emotional Bonds and Attachments with Animals

The emotional attachment and enjoyment which we, as humans,  experience when becoming the carer or owner of a pet can be very rewarding and provide memories which are imprinted alongside treasured memories of our human relationships. The bond experienced with an animal or family pet can be something which has developed over a number of years. From a guinea pig to a horse the life span will vary considerably, but that doesn’t necessarily alter or negate the depth of feeling that the loss of an animal or family pet can induce, or increase the level of attachment where the animal has had a longer life span.

I can vividly remember how distraught I was when the first born of a litter of pups I had with Daisy, my field cocker spaniel, was stillborn. My sadness felt overwhelming, perhaps heightened by the fact that the pup hadn’t had the chance to start life before it was taken away. The pain and sorrow was immense, which I feel was compounded by the thought that somehow I could have prevented the pup from dying. In reality there wasn’t anything I could have done, but my sense of responsibility overcame my rational thinking for a period of time.

For those of us who form strong attachments with animals the pain of loss can be experienced in a very similar way to human loss and grief and should not be dismissed by either the person experiencing it, or those who offer support to the person who is bereaved. Feelings of guilt and anger can also feature heavily in any grief process.
  

 

The Process of Bereavement and Loss

Although there may be similarities in how we as humans experience grief I would like to say that not everyone will experience all these stages and they may not follow in the same pattern that others experience grief. The length of time that you mourn the loss of a pet or animal will vary and be influenced by your personal response and the circumstances surrounding the loss, amongst other things.

Grief is a very personal healing process that helps us to deal with loss and I prefer to relate the stages to emotional reactions as opposed to set experiences, as there may often be a moving backwards and forwards through the stages until the feelings of grief finally move towards acceptance.

 

The stages Kubler-Ross identified are:

 

  • Denial- This can be experienced as disbelief that we have experienced the loss. An example of this can be returning home and imagining that the pet which has passed away will be in its usual place, or waiting to greet you

 

  • Anger- feelings and expression such as ‘why has this happened to me?’

 

  • Bargaining-  ‘If I changed something within me perhaps it would make this easier, or prevent it happening again’

 

  • Depression-  ‘I’ll never feel happy again- I will always feel as unhappy as this’

 

  • Acceptance- ‘This is still very painful, but I’m starting to feel that I can look to the future’

 

During the process of acceptance of the loss there may be occasions where you feel guilty that you are less emotional. I feel it’s important to understand that this is a natural reaction within the acceptance phase and should not be viewed as selfishness or that you have forgotten your pet.
  

 

Aspects of Animal Bereavement which may further compound the grieving process

There may be additional issues which can create a higher level of distress in the grief experienced following the death or loss of an animal. This may be influenced by any of the following:

 

  • Euthanasia has been suggested as the most humane way of ending the animal’s life and the owner being required to make the decision to proceed with this
  • The animal died as a result of an accident
  • The animal died whilst it had left it in the care of another person
  • Circumstances prevent the owner from being able to continue to look after the animal. (This may be due, for example, to personal circumstances or financial reasons)
  • The animal died as a result of unintentional neglect caused by the owner or another person
  • The animal escaped or was taken from its home environment and was not recovered or returned
  • A member of the family caused fatal injury to the animal
  • Finding an animal dead when there has been no indication of ill health

 

Where any of the above reasons had contributed to the death or loss of an animal it may create a more complicated grief response as there could be feelings of anger or retribution towards yourself or a third person who you may feel induced the loss or death of the pet, and a sense of personal guilt for not being able to predict or prevent any of the contributing factors leading to the event.
  

 

Support with Bereavement

I remember in the early days of my counselling training where I was asked to role play a client with a colleague for an assessment of her counselling skills. My colleague had never kept pets or animals and did not understand how in my role play, where I was given the script of having just lost a pet whilst also going through divorce, that I chose to focus on my feelings of loss and grief over my pet as opposed to my impending divorce. When we discussed the role play and responses with our tutor I expressed that although I could see how my colleague was bewildered by my having focused on the loss of a pet when she felt my priority would have been the divorce, at that moment in time the grief concerning a pet was greater for me.

RainbowI guess what I’m trying to highlight is that we as humans have differing levels of attachment to animals and that may include some people feeling that they cannot understand how others are so bereft when losing a pet or animal. It may be that you yourself are surprised by how deeply affected you are by the loss. What I consider to be important is that you allow yourself to express the grief as you experience it, and not feel influenced with how others would wish you to, or expect you to respond.

If you have experienced a loss which you feel is still very painful, or you would like the opportunity to explore your feelings regarding grief for a pet or animal you may wish to consider counselling as it offers a confidential and supportive environment to talk with a professional and seek an acceptance or resolution to your grief at your own personal pace.

 I offer online and face to face counselling for many personal issues including pet bereavement. If you would like to enquire about counselling please contact me at:jevansonline@hotmail.com or visit my website.

 

Jane Evans

Counsellor
  
  

 


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