The Loss of a Loved One

There are never adequate words that can describe the feeling of losing a pet. Some say it is more difficult than losing a human friend or family member. There is a level of unconditional love exchanged between animal and human that is difficult to quantify. A bond that we strive and desire with our human counterparts that simply can’t be attained in most relationships. There have been several scientific studies that validate what we feel when we lose a beloved pet, however some of the stark differences between losing a loved family or friend vs. losing a loved pet comes in the grieving process. When we lose a person that we have loved, we follow a social pattern of grieving. We hold a funeral, a wake, we mourn, and often are provided time off of work to experience and cope with the loss. On the contrary, when we lose a pet, we often hear from well meaning others a less than supportive approach. Oh, the customary “I’m sorry for your loss.” words are spoken, and the hugs and tears may be shared for a short time immediately following the loss of a pet, but those are often followed by an expectation that we should ‘move on’ or ‘get over it’ with some degree of expedience. Especially by not pet owners.

A beloved pet is not just something we ‘own’. Science has proven that we develop the same chemical, psychological, and emotional bonds with our pets as we do with humans. It has also supported that these feelings can run deeper than with our human loved ones because we create our world around our pets. Our daily activities are often dictated by the routines of our pets needs, as well as our own. We wake to feel them brush against us, ‘kiss’ us, and provide us with purpose. We set a schedule to feed them, walk them, play with them, clean up after them, take them to day care, etc. We reach for them unconsciously as we drink our coffee, read the paper, watch our favorite television shows, or are feeling under the weather. They are sometimes the only company we want to keep when we are struggling with a difficult day at school or work. When having an uncomfortable or stressful conversation with a loved one, we find them next to us or in our lap, providing an anchor in the storm… stroking and holding them like a lifeline helping us to feel secure as we navigate the perils of discomfort.

To a patient or child, a beloved pet is a beacon of security and keeper of secrets that we freely tell our troubles and fears to daily. They are a friend, a companion, a counselor, and often the best medicine we could ever hope for in a time of distress.

It is no wonder that when we lose a pet we are impacted so greatly.

So how can we help someone after the loss of a pet? There are never adequate words that can provide comfort. But we can provide small actions that speak volumes during this period of loss. When a friend or family member loses a pet, acknowledge it. Send a card, a plant, flowers, or perhaps a framed photo you may have of the pet. Treat the loss as you would had they lost a human family member. Offer a hug. Allow them to shed tears of grief. Try very hard not to discount the depth of their emotional loss by suggesting they get another dog right away, would you suggest a widow obtain a new husband so quickly after losing a beloved spouse? Give them the time they need to process the loss. Consider that every day moving forward has changed for them. Their daily routine has been altered. They no longer wake to the excited kisses in bed, the clicking of ‘happy feet’ on the tile while breakfast is prepared. No more walks around the park, meeting other dog owners they may have become familiar visiting with. No one to reach for in times of distress, at a time when they may need it most! Yet the reminders are starkly present… the kibble waiting to be eaten… the dog beds in every room, a favorite toy laying abandoned in the middle of the floor, the leash and collar now hung with care beckoning for use. All of this a profound reminder that their life has been changed forever.

Be patient with those who have lost a pet. Offer love and kindness. Be sensitive to the knowledge that this pet may have provided a security no human could have offered. Have courage to validate the loss, and try.. try hard, not to over-shadow THEIR loss by comparing it to a previous loss of a pet you may have suffered. Although it may feel right to share your experience, it can often feel like you are competing with the emotional impact of their current loss.

This article was written in memory of Jack Jack, the “Cadillac” of dogs (as referred to by our volunteers and staff). ??- July 3, 2019 May he find joy and peace across the Rainbow Bridge.

Colleen Combs