Losing a cherished pet can be an emotionally devastating experience. Unfortunately, on a societal level, we simply do not recognize how painful pet loss can be and how much it can impair our emotional and physical health and even our basic functioning. The New England Journal of Medicine recently reported that a woman whose dog died experienced Broken Heart Syndrome—a condition in which the person exhibits symptoms that mimic a heart attack. While the story made worldwide news it did little to change our general attitudes.
For example, few of us would ask our employers for time off to grieve a beloved pet. We fear that doing so would paint us as overly sentimental or emotionally weak. And few employers would grant such requests were we to make them.
The fact that pet loss isn’t sanctioned by society at large has a significant and detrimental impact on our ability to recover. It not only robs us of crucial social support it makes us feel embarrassed about the magnitude of the heartbreak we feel and hesitant to disclose our distress to our loved ones. We might even wonder what is wrong with us and question why we are responding in such ‘disproportional’ ways to the loss.
Here are five reasons pet loss can be so devastating, why it causes such disruption to our lives and why we should take such events more seriously than we currently do.
1. Losing a pet can hurt as much as losing a family member. Many pet owners consider their pets to be part of their family. In fact, many people who live alone consider their pet to be the closest member of their family. They might see their parents or siblings several times a year but their cat, dog (horse, bird, or any other cherished animal we consider a pet) is part of their daily lives and as such, the pet’s death is likely to be far more impactful than that of a geographically distant relative.
2. All pets function as therapy animals. Whether they are trained to do so or not, all pets function as therapy animals to some extent. Their mere presence provides companionship, reduces loneliness and depression and eases anxiety. When we lose them we lose a significant and often, vital source of support and comfort.
3. Caretaking makes us feel better about ourselves. Caring for another being, whether human or animal, has been shown to help our mood and self-esteem, and increase feelings of well-being and purpose. When we no longer have a pet to care for we lose a significant source of emotional self-care as well.
4. Our daily routines get disrupted. Caring for pets involves routines and responsibilities around which we craft our days. We get exercise by walking our dog, we awake early to feed our cat, and we look forward to the weekend so we can ride our horse. Losing a pet disrupts established routines that provide us with structure and give our actions meaning. This is why, in addition to emotional pain, we feel aimless and lost in the days and weeks after our pet dies.
5. We lose aspects of our identity. Most dog owners are more likely to be known in their neighborhood by their animal’s name than they are by theirs. They are Rosie’s mom or Fido’s dad and they get attention wherever they go. Online, our pet’s social media pages often have more followers than our own. As such, our pets become part of our self-definition and losing them causes a rupture in our very sense-of-self. Without them we are forced into anonymity, we become invisible. .
Losing a pet doesn’t just cause a broken heart; it elicits real and serious grief reactions. It’s time we took it more seriously both on an individual and on a societal level.
For more about healing from pet loss check out How to Fix a Broken Heart (TED Books/Simon & Schuster, 2018).
Copyright 2018 Guy Winch
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