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Losing Our Pets: How We Grow From Grief

Research shows how much our furry friends can change us for the better.

Key points

  • The loss of a pet can result in disenfranchised grief because it isn't understood as well as the loss of a human being.
  • People can experience post-traumatic growth in response to the grief of losing a beloved pet just as they can to losing a person.
  • Some examples include improving how they relate to others and increasing their appreciation of life, among other factors.

Although losing a loved one can be devastating, people can grow from grief. This is a process known as post-traumatic growth (PTG), by which individuals change in positive and meaningful ways in response to traumatic events, and beyond what the person had prior to the traumatic event. But while we know this to be true when we lose human loved ones, is it also true when we lose our beloved pets?

This question was the focus of a study led by psychologist Wendy Packman of the Pacific School of Psychology. Studies show that the pain of losing a pet can be equal to or greater than losing a human loved one, though it is unclear how the bereavement process may differ.

In order to pursue this inquiry, Dr. Packman and her team recruited participants who lost a pet through death. From there, participants completed various questionnaires about pet loss, PTG, and their bereavement experiences, which were analyzed and coded.

The results were striking. They showed that PTG in response to pet loss strongly resembled the process when grieving a beloved human—with some key differences.

Post-traumatic growth factors

A selective overview of the study’s findings is described below.

Relating to others

Participants endorsed this theme the most at 19 percent. The most frequently coded sentiments were: “I have a greater sense of closeness with others” and “I have more compassion for others.” In the wake of the loss, participants felt closer to their immediate family. One participant shared: “I feel a stronger bond between my son and my husband. I was distant from my husband until this tragedy. Now, I’m starting to see how great he is.”

The authors also note that only a few participants agreed with the statement, “I know I can count on people in times of trouble.” They surmise that this may be because pet loss is a disenfranchised form of grief, and support may be limited to that of their closest friends and family.

Personal strength

This was the second most frequently coded theme (along with an appreciation of life below) at 12 percent. The item, “I have discovered that I am stronger than I thought I was,” was the most frequently coded in the study, likely due to the participants’ experience with euthanasia, the authors contend. One participant reflected, “I can survive soul-crushing grief. It did not kill me when it felt like it could have.”

Appreciation of life

Within this theme, the item, “I have changed my priorities about what is important in life,” was the most frequently coded. Participants’ view of life as ephemeral and precious also emerged. One participant remarked: “I realize that death is the only certain thing in life and that I must appreciate my two dogs even more.”

Another highly coded item within this theme was “I can better appreciate each day.” Bereaved pet owners learned important lessons from their pets. A participant expressed it like this: “Each loss reminds me to value those in my life, to appreciate each one of them, humans and animals.”

Spiritual change

This theme represented 8 percent of participants’ responses. The item, “I have a better understanding of spiritual matters,” was one of the more frequently coded items within this theme, reflecting being more present and connected with the universe. A participant shared: “I have a fonder appreciation of all living creatures. I am less attached to material items and have a sense of connection to the universe.”

New possibilities

At 7 percent, this theme was the least frequently coded. Within this theme, the most common item was: “I am more likely to try to change things which need changing,” which largely related to how participants would improve their surviving pets’ quality of life.

Emergent growth themes

In addition to these post-traumatic growth themes, Dr. Packman and her collaborators found responses in other areas, which are described below.

Relating to animals

Participants’ responses were largely coded for the attachment relationship, reflecting the deep bond participants had with their pets. Some responses were also coded for unconditional love. Consider one participant’s reflection:

She taught me about unconditional love. In her final hours, I think she was hanging on because she was afraid to leave me. I told her she had my permission to leave, and when she did go, I feel, it was an actual privilege to be holding her paw at the last minute.”

Continuing bonds/coping with loss

Within this theme, participants’ narratives were mostly coded for lessons learned, with particular respect to the qualities their pet had that they admired. A participant relayed:

I use my pet as a symbol of motivation and courage to accomplish things. He taught us so much in his lifetime; he has left a legacy that I hope to live up to one day. Tolerance, humor, kindness, boldness, I could go on forever.

This post is dedicated to Pippin Eisenberg, who gave so much love and taught so many lessons. We miss him dearly.

References

Posttraumatic Growth Following the Loss of a Pet. Wendy Packman, Cori Bussolari, Rachel Katz, Betty J. Carmack, and Nigel P. Field. OMEGA—Journal of Death and Dying 0(0) 1–23, 2016

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