Reveals the Agony of Pet Loss
By Allen and Linda Anderson
Animal lovers expressed outrage when people affected by Hurricane Katrina were forced to abandon beloved pets, even guide and service dogs. As a horrified world watched images of animals being snatched from crying people’s arms, it served as a wake-up call that pet loss hurts deeply. The importance of animal-human relationships can no longer be dismissed as trivial, glibly ridiculed, or laughed away.
In this country, pets (378 million) outnumber people (290 million). 63 percent of all U.S. households have a pet. Americans spend $36 billion per year on pet supplies and services. 83 percent of pet lovers call themselves their pet’s mommy or daddy and coo to their companion animals.
After a pet is lost due to a death, disappearance, or disaster, increasing numbers of people mourn, sometimes inconsolably. They want to express gratitude for the joy animals bring to their lives and establish traditions for when they are gone. Rituals usually only associated with humans are finding their way into American culture to acknowledge the pain of pet loss.
Crying at Work
In our research on healing from pet loss for “Rainbows & Bridges: An Animal Companion Memorial Kit” (New World Library, October 2005), we found there were certain comments and attitudes that drive grief over pet loss deeper into a person’s heart. Buried emotions then result in prolonged sadness that leaves the bereaved with a sense of helplessness. Repressed grief also causes them to mourn at times and in places where they are likely to be criticized.
Most people consider workplace tears appropriate if there has been a human death in the family. But a pet dying is often not thought to be worth weeping over. A week after Kathleen McBride’s dog Tyler died, her boss then, a young woman in her thirties, found Kathleen teary-eyed at her desk. The boss said, “Why are you still crying? I thought you would be over that dog by now.”
Shocked by the woman’s insensitivity and at a loss for words, Kathleen says, “I couldn’t begin to explain to her the enormity of my loss, so I didn’t even try.” Fortunately other coworkers were more understanding, sending Kathleen cards and notes to express their condolences. These helped to console her. “After all,” she says, “a loss is a loss.”
We suggest for those who go to a job everyday to either take personal or bereavement time away from work. Even one day at home, where the person can be honest about overwhelming sadness, anger, or regrets, builds strength to go back into what feels like a hostile environment. In addition, talking freely to someone who understands what a hole the death of a pet has made, helps the grieving person legitimize his or her feelings and facilitates healing.
Pet Loss Affects
the Entire Family
Pet loss is a family affair. It affects children in unique ways, especially since this might be a child’s first bewildering experience with death. Britain’s Joint Council on Qualifications understood the impact an animal family member’s death can have on a child’s ability to concentrate and do well with academic tasks. In May 2005 the council directed that students receive extra points on high school and junior-high standardized tests if they experienced the stress of a pet’s death the day of or before taking exams.
Parents sometimes have a compounded problem with buried grief as they wonder how
much of their emotions to express in front of their children. They tend to focus
on their children’s needs for understanding, sometimes neglecting or suppressing
their own emotions.
Cheri Barton Ross, author of “Pet Loss and Children: Establishing a Healthy Foundation” (Routledge 2005) says, “Shared emotions within a family can be very healthy for both the parent and child. Children learn there are feelings that need to be expressed when a pet we love dies (runs away, or is adopted to another home). However, parents should not use their children as sources of support. If the parent is feeling overwhelmed by the feelings of loss, they should seek counseling support to work through the loss.”
In “Rainbows & Bridges” we address the disconnect between what a person believes about animals and the afterlife of animals, and the official dogma of his or her church. The inability to find spiritual comfort can cause a crisis of faith. One woman wrote to us that when she confided that she believed she would be reunited with her pet in heaven, another woman in her congregation called this hope a “heathen belief.” Another said that her parish priest was shocked when she expressed the wish to bury her dog’s ashes in the coffin with her.
Moira Anderson Allen, M.Ed., is the author of “Coping with Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet” and hosts the Pet Loss Support Page at www.pet-loss.net. “As a Christian,” she says, “I take comfort from the scripture that assures me that through me, my household will be saved. Do pets go to heaven? Do they have ‘souls’? The Bible doesn’t tell us. So the only truly honest answer anyone can give to this question is ‘I don’t know.’ We must answer based on the understanding of God and heaven that he has placed in our hearts.”
We advise people not to deprive themselves of the consolation their church provides, if they can agree to disagree on these issues. In some cases, a grieving person can find a different congregation or a minister who has a more tolerant viewpoint and is nonjudgmental about the desire for a heaven including animals.
Millions, including survivors of Hurricane Katrina who now have to deal with the loss of animal family members, long to honor the pets they miss so terribly. They need consolation, understanding, and hope for a spiritual reunion. They need to grieve naturally and openly over the animal friends who provided a wellspring of unconditional love in this world.
Allen and Linda Anderson are authors of a series of books about benefits of the
human-animal connection. “Rainbows & Bridges: An Animal Companion Memorial Kit”
includes memorial services, remembrance practices, journaling, suggestions for
healing, information about the grieving process, inspirational quotes, and
meditative exercises to help individuals and families recover from pet loss.
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