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Experiencing the Loss of a Pet

Why the passing of our non-human companions can be so painful.

Luke Smillie
Jiminy the budgie
Source: Luke Smillie

Had he lived, my pet budgie Jiminy would have been eight years old this week. His health had been in decline this year, with no options for treatment, and it was up to my partner and I to decide when to let him go. Late one night, about a month ago, the time finally came.

Our relationships with companion animals can be as significant as our human relationships. Our pets fill our home-life with their presence and in their absence, our homes don’t feel the same; our routines fall apart. It is striking to think that many of our human friends and family members aren’t part of our daily lives in quite this way. As a result, the loss of a pet can affect us in ways we don't expect.

In my case, I discovered that I'd almost never been alone in my current home. Even when my partner was away for a week or more, I still had a feathered friend with whom to spend the evenings. Now when I am home alone I am genuinely by myself.

Although most people have enjoyed some kind of bond with animals, there is also a general notion that animals matter less than humans. This too can make it hard to cope with the loss of a pet. It is this notion that leads well-intentioned others to ask if we plan to buy a new pet—seeming to suggest that the one we’ve lost can be readily replaced. We may also downplay our loss to ourselves, or feel embarrassed to take time off from work. Somehow the death of an animal does not seem a "legitimate" loss.

This sense of illegitimacy can lead to an experience known as "disenfranchised grief." Psychologists have explained this in terms of the lack of societal recognition of particular kinds of loss. For instance, the death of a distant relative or an ex-spouse can seem as though it doesn’t really "count" as a bereavement. Similarly, because our society regards animals as more like things than people—commodities that can be bought, owned, and sold—mourning a pet as though it were a human family member can seem melodramatic.

Indeed, research shows that many people regard their feelings of sadness following the death of a pet as somehow excessive or inappropriate, while also poorly understood by others. Such experiences can result in a kind of "quiet suffering," and constrain post-traumatic growth.

Grief and loss are above all highly individual experiences, shaped by our personalities, among other factors. In the case of pet loss, such factors include the strength of one’s bond with the pet, whether one lives alone, as well as one’s age. Various facets of our situations and ourselves lead each of us to respond differently to loss, and to rely on different sources of support (in my case, episodes of Jeeves and Wooster proved indispensable). As we see throughout psychology, there is often no universal account that can be given for human behaviour and experience.

According to a recent Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey, almost two-thirds of Australians have at least one pet. Thus, although the loss of a pet will affect each of us differently, it is an experience that most of us will have in common at some point in our lives.

To learn more about pet loss, including advice and links to support services, I recommend Adam Clark's blog on Psychology Today.

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