The Loss of a Pet
By Leigh-Anne Dennison

The following is an article I wrote for a journalism class I took at Baldwin-Wallace College in 1995. To be fair to those I interviewed for the class and article, I have opted to use their first names only in this webbed version of my original piece. I opted to web the version of the article I submitted originally to the professor. While she gave me a very good grade on the article and positive feedback, she suggested I condense or cut a couple paragraphs. I felt/feel the paragraphs are too integral to the piece so I opted to leave them "as is."

In the small office sat Doreen, her daughter and their marmalade tabby cat, Tuner. Tuner clung to the women, his face bearing a biopsy scar which had confirmed the diagnosis: cancer. As the shot took effect, Tuner's breathing grew more shallow, his pupils dilated and glazed over as he stared at their tear-stained faces. Their veterinarian quietly entered and took the now lifeless body from the women. In the emptiness of the room, mother and daughter embraced and wept.

The recollection of this Saturday morning in November 1990 still brings Doreen to tears. "You felt so helpless because they [the animals] can't tell you where it hurts, and they don't understand 'I love you' or 'goodbye'." The grief Doreen and her family experienced following the death of their cat was no less than that experienced when a family member or close friend dies and is a grief shared by many pet owners, who consider their pets family members.

Leeanne put her cat, Charlie, to sleep New Year's Day of this year after his health deteriorated. She compares the emotions she and her husband experienced with the grief she felt when her grandparents passed away. "I remember the special things and happy times," says Leeanne. She goes on to say that perhaps the grief for a pet is less complex because "the relationship is less complicated by guilts and regrets and unfulfilled expectations, misunderstandings and 'if onlys'."

Pepper, a collie-mutt, was a 13-year member of the Karen’s family until she suddenly got sick last year. "We got Pepper the day I found out I was pregnant with Kevin," explains Karen. "My son grew up with her, she was like a sister to him." Pepper suffered from kidney and liver failure and the family made the difficult decision to put her to sleep.

"I lost a big part of my family that day," says Caryn, who put her dog to sleep after a four-month battle with cancer. "She was my best friend back 10 years prior when my mom died. She had been through a lot with me and I think I lost a little part of myself," says Caryn.

Angie, owner of Paws Awhile Pet Memorial Park in Richfield, agrees with Caryn that the bond between owner and pet goes even beyond a sense of family. She calls the pet "an extension of self". "You tie up so much into this relationship with your pet--he's more than a best friend--he is not critical of you, he listens to you. When you're happy, when you're sad, you share with your pet, [so] that when you lose him you've actually lost part of yourself," says Angie.

In her business she is called upon to counsel the bereaved and sometimes their families. The Paws Awhile phoneline rings in Angie’s household 24 hours a day. While she has no formal training in grief counseling, Angie uses her personal experiences, many reference books, and advice and instruction received from other cemetery owners/funeral directors, pet and human, to counsel.

From her observances, Angie likens the grief over a pet to that of a human family member. "When someone loses a pet, they still have to go through the same stages of grief--it is a loved one they're losing," she says. The stages she is referring to are denial, bargaining, anger, grief and resolution.

Denial is most prevalent when a pet is diagnosed as terminal. Though even the unexpected death of an animal can trigger this stage of grief to some degree, the stage is more evident in an owner refusing to accept the diagnosis and impending death.

Bargaining is trying to deal with God to keep a loved one with around longer. When bargaining for a human loved one, an individual may bargain with general behaviors such as being a better person, being nicer, being more religious or even sacrificing self, such as offering his or her life in their place. With animals, pet owners may bargain treatment of the animal. "Sometimes people will bargain with God over a pet, and they'll say 'God let me keep this pet and I'll hurry home from work and never miss one of his walks again'," says Angie. Unfortunately, this stage is sometimes skipped by the pet owner, especially in the event of unexpected death and drags out the healing process.

The next stage, anger, can involve just about anyone: the bereaved, the family, the veterinarian, or the pet cemetery owner/worker. It is often ''displaced anger,'' explains Angie, meaning that it is a feeling of anger, drawn out of the sense of sorrow, abandonment, failure or guilt the bereaved may be feeling, which is directed without cause at others or him/herself.

After the anger comes true grief, when everything else has been resolved and "you have an emptiness in you” explains Angie. Once these issues and feelings have been dealt with, resolution is finally achieved. Resolution allows the pet owner to remember the good memories without feeling the intense sorrow over the loss.

These are the stages when normal grieving or mourning is permitted following a loss. Grief over a pet, however, is not always viewed as a permissible grief. Rather it is what psychologists and researchers refer to as disenfranchised grief, "the grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned or socially supported," according to Kenneth Doka in his book Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing the Hidden Sorrow. This type of grief is prevalent in cases of loss due to Aids, suicide, abortion/miscarriage or even pet loss.

The grief the bereaved feels does not qualify under society's definition--it lacks the recognition of relationship, loss or griever. A relationship is not recognized when the connection "between the bereaved and the deceased is not based on recognized kin ties," writes Doka, and therefore is not socially sanctioned. Examples of this type may include extramarital affairs or homosexual couples.

There are cases where the reality of loss is not "socially validated" because society does not define it as significant such as the loss of a pet or fetus. Another example of non-recognized loss is one in which the party or object remains living but is somehow separated from the griever as is the case with divorce or Alzheimer’s patients.

Lastly, the griever may not be recognized because he or she is not defined socially as "capable of grief". This is often true of the very young and very old.

Disenfranchised grief in the case of pet loss is primarily due to the lack of recognition of the relationship because of a lack of understanding of the human-pet bond and the lack of significance given to companion animals. In the chapter relating specifically to pet loss, Michigan State University professors, George Paulus and Cyrus Stewart, and Michigan Public Health Department official, John Thrush, discuss the human-pet bond as strong pschological impactor aiding in the development of trust, and "contributing in a positive way to an individual’s sense of worth.

Disenfranchised grief hinders the griever's progress through the aforementioned stages by definition by eliminating the socialized support necessary for healing and resolution. Doka reports that an intensifying or compounding of feelings associated with grief including anger, sadness, depression, loneliness, hopelessness or guilt can result. With a lack of support, these emotions can become severe to the point of "anxiety or panic states, suicidal thoughts and other affective disorders," say Paulus, Stewart and Thrush.

Until such a time as society re-defines the significance of human grief reactions to the loss of a pet and the strong human-companion animal bond, individuals will need to make the effort to console and support the friends and loved ones grieving over such a loss--enfranchising their grief, legitimizing their loss and helping in the healing.

Methods for doing so include ritualization (pet burial and service), encouraging the bereaved to communicate with animal lovers who have experienced similar losses, and reading up on the subject of human-companion animal bonds and pet, loss. Some books which are appropriate for both friend and bereaved include: Euthanasia of a Companion Pet by William Kaye and Susan Cohen, Pet Loss: A Thoughtful Guide for Adults and Children by Herbert Nieberg, Pet and Human Bereavement by William Kaye and When Your Pet Dies: How to Cope with Your Feelings by Jamie Quackenbush.

I welcome your feeback. Thank you for reading.
For additional resources on the subject of grief in pet loss, see my Memorial Page.