The Cultural Stigma of Pet Loss and Grieving Their Death
An overview to why grieving the death of our pets can bring societal judgment.
Posted Feb 14, 2017
Have you ever heard the words, “It was just a pet, you can get another one” or, “you know they don’t live very long.” Or even, “it's about time you move past that dog/cat/horse/iguana/pig/bird… and get on with life.” Even if meant in a well-intended fashion, modern-day American culture just isn’t comfortable with the concept of death and dying, especially when it comes to the death of our pets, although that may be slowly changing.
There are many theories and concepts between the avoidance of death and reasons for it. Many revolve around the concept of fearing our own death. That if we focus on death it is a reminder of our own dying process and the unconscious fears that we associate with loss. Death is a “great unknown” for many people, with highly individualist ways of coping with the fear (or lack thereof) in our own mortality.
For this reason, it can add even more stigma onto those experiencing the death of their companion animal. If cultural naturally avoids the conversation and topic of death, experiencing the grief from someone who has lost a pet can be extra uncomfortable.
This article will highlight the broader cultural concepts and reasons why cultural stigma surrounds those experiencing pet loss. Why pet owners commonly feel guilty over their grief or add pressure to “get over” their experience quicker. It will also highlight a brief overview of what exactly is the concept of cultural stigma as it relates to grieving the death of a pet.
What is Cultural Stigma
Cultural stigma is also referred to as social stigma. We live within the identities that we define for ourselves, and more frequently the definitions that are given to us, regardless of their positive or negative impact. Your race, ethnicity, religious practices (or lack thereof), financial status, job, passions, interests, intelligence level, personality all play into the identities that are presented about who you are.
When someone (or a community) judges or condemns you for having one of these identities, this can present as a stigma that has been placed on you. Commonly, stigmas arise when the “average” person defines someone as being weird, strange, or not-normal. Stigmatizing does not mean someone is actually any of these things. Look at the history of slavery being “normal” and people fighting for freedom from slavery and against segregation was stigmatized heavily. With action, education, and the passion of those people and communities fighting for rights, this stigma was slowly overturned and replaced.
Harvard University has a public document that expands on the concept of social and cultural stigma that they have provided for free access if you would like to go into more depth on the subject.
Hidden Nature of Death & Dying
Although the understanding and importance of hospice for humans and animals is on the rise, there is still a hidden nature to the death and dying process. For many of us, being faced with death on a day-to-day process can be few and far between.
A few statistics from Stanford School of Medicine show that approximately 80 percent of Americans would rather die at home surrounded by their loved ones. However, these reports indicate that 60 percent of American pass away in hospitals, 20 percent die in skilled nursing facilities and only roughly 20 percent of people die at home.
It could be argued that many times people are “transported away” to hospitals and other skilled facilities to complete their dying process, away from the eyes of the public. Why? Due to our increasing fear of death and intrinsic discomfort with the process, it can be easier to ignore a subject than face the impact of facing it for many occasions
Lack of Federal Application in Bereavement Days and Importance
We can understand a lot about the perceived importance of something when laws and regulations are formed on a broad scale. If we look at the application of legally required bereavement days, or mandated days an employer must provide to their employee in the case of an associated death. Currently, employers are only legally obligated to allow three days off for the death of an immediate family member due to Funeral Leave obligations, but no individual days are mandated for “grieving.”
Companies vary on their individual policies regarding leave time and they aren’t under any legal obligation to pay you for your time taken. They might even mandate that personal PTO time be used. The Family Medical Leave Act does dictate 12 weeks available to an employee due to serious health complications. One such example could be a severe depression as a direct result of a family member’s death, which falls under “serious medical condition” for the individual.
Overall, the regulatory nature provides a lack of understanding in bereavement concerns. Many mainstream corporations present with the “pull up your bootstraps” modality to grief and “get on with your life” terminology, or face replacement and loss of a job.
Pet Ownership and Applied Ethics
We live in an interesting time in which an increasing amount of people in the American culture consider pets to be just as important as another family member1. Pets are given the same importance to many individuals as one of their own children, holding the same status of affection, appreciation, and nurture.
At the same time, and unlike human children, you can find a pet store at your local mall that will sell you a companion animal such as a puppy, kitten, or more exotic pet for a fee. These animals are placed in cages and waiting for your ownership.
Without going into the political spectrum or applied ethics of such practice (visit Marc Bekoff’s Psychology Today page for all things animal ethics), the message being presented about "ownership" is very conflicting for many families. Although pets are moving towards the status of being members of the family, they can still easily be purchased and sold.
In 2016 the FBI announced that any mistreatment or killing of animals is a crime against society and that efforts to implement a Federal animal abuse registry are starting to take shape. These actions help reduce the gap between animal “ownership” and “partnership” or considering pets as legal members of the family.
Grieving for Our Pets
Highlighting the broader concepts written about above is important as we carry around many unconscious messages within our day-to-day psyche. Our cultural can be quickly defined for us, rather than allowing us to define it ourselves.
Pet owners who love their pets and consider them members of the family1 still express “I must be crazy for grieving so much” or questioning their level of grief, wondering if it is normal to feel the way that they do. In fact, many people experience the death of their pet as more painful than an immediate family member in levels of intensity and duration.
Culture, on average, shows us that many are uncomfortable and plausibly afraid of the death and dying process. People generally don’t know what to say in the emotional expression or pain of another, especially in experiencing someone's grief. As a society, we are also still governed by the false pretense you can “pull up your bootstraps” and just “get over it.” Our workplaces generally don’t express understanding that it is important and actually healthier to set aside time to grieve and process through your experience. It is just as equally important to grieve the death of our companion
Remember that the grief pet owner’s face after experiencing the death of their pet and constant companion can be immense. It’s important that you grieve your loss.
It’s important, it matters… yes, it is painful, and it is very real.
Adam Clark, LSW, AASW is a published writer, educator, and adjunct professor at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work. Adam focuses his work on the psychology behind the human-animal bond, specializing in endings and transitions. He is passionate about reducing the cultural stigma associated with pet loss, supporting pet owners, and educating veterinary professionals. Additional information on Adam and his current projects can be found at www.lovelosstransition.com, or he can best be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Suthers-McCabe, H. M. (2001). Take one pet and call me in the morning. Generations, 25(2), 93-95.