Why mourning a pet can be harder than grieving for a person

By Sam Carr, University of Bath

Many pet owners know that our connections with animals can be on an emotional par with those we share with other humans – and scientific research backs this up.

The key ingredients of human attachment are experiencing the other person as a dependable source of comfort, seeking them out when distressed, feeling enjoyment in their presence and missing them when apart. Researchers have identified these as features of our relationships with pets too.

But there are complexities. Some groups of people are more likely to develop intimate bonds with their pets. This includes isolated older people, people who have lost trust in humans, and people who rely on assistance animals.

Researchers have also found our connections with our fluffy, scaled and feathered friends come with a price, in that we grieve the loss of our pets. But some aspects of pet grief are unique.

Euthanasia

For many people, pet death may be the only experience they have of grief connected to euthanasia. Guilt or doubt over a decision to euthanize a cherished companion animal can complicate grief. For example, research has found that disagreements within families about whether it is (or was) right to put a pet to sleep can be particularly challenging.

But euthanasia also gives people a chance to prepare for a beloved animal’s passing. There is a chance to say goodbye and plan final moments to express love and respect such as a favorite meal, a night in together or a last goodbye.

There are stark differences in people’s responses to pet euthanasia. Israeli research found that in the aftermath of euthanized pet death, 83% of people feel certain they made the right decision. They believed they had granted their animal companion a more honorable death that minimized suffering.

However, a Canadian study found 16% of participants in their study whose pets were euthanized “felt like murderers”. And American research has shown how nuanced the decision can be as 41% of participants in a study felt guilty and 4% experienced suicidal feelings after they consented to their animal being euthanized. Cultural beliefs, the nature and intensity of their relationship, attachment styles and personality influence people’s experience of pet euthanasia.

Disenfranchised grief

This type of loss is still less acceptable socially. This is called disenfranchised grief, which refers to losses that society doesn’t fully appreciate or ignores. This makes it harder to mourn, at least in public.

Psychologists Robert Neiymeyer and John Jordan said disenfranchised grief is a result of an empathy failure. People deny their own pet grief because a part of them feels it is shameful. This isn’t just about keeping a stiff upper lip in the office or at the pub. People may feel pet grief is unacceptable to certain members of their family, or to the family more generally.

And at a wider level, there may be a mismatch between the depth of pet grief and social expectations around animal death. For example, some people may react with contempt if someone misses work or takes leave to mourn a pet.

Research suggests that when people are in anguish over the loss of a pet, disenfranchised grief makes it more difficult for them to find solace, post-traumatic growth and healing. Disenfranchised grief seems to restrain emotional expression in a way that makes it harder to process.

Our relationships to our pets can be as meaningful as those we share with each other. Losing our pets is no less painful, and our grief reflects that. There are dimensions of pet grief we need to recognise as unique. If we can accept pet death as a type of bereavement, we can lessen people’s suffering. We’re only human, after all.The Conversation

Sam Carr, Reader in Education with Psychology and Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

About the Author

The Conversation

The Conversation is a nonprofit news organization dedicated to unlocking the knowledge of academic experts for the public. The Conversation’s team of 21 editors works with researchers to help them explain their work clearly and without jargon.

The contents of this website do not constitute advice and are provided for informational purposes only. See our full disclaimer

Comments

  1. A relationship with a pet is almost all good. Human relationships can be much deeper and more reciprocal, but are also more complicated (mix of positive and negative experiences/emotions associated with the relationship), perhaps it is just a different type of grief.

  2. True statement. My father died this year and I barely blinked. My dog died in 2012 and my cat in 2019 and I still can’t hear their favorite songs or see their favorite toys without bawling. I just love animals and connect with them on a deeper level than I have any person. People act with ulterior motives. They backstab. They hate. They judge. You think you know someone and then you find out they’d rather you die for being who you are than enjoy life as you are. Animals don’t judge. They love. They are happy to see you. They listen when you talk. I will forever mourn the loss of my beloved fur kids. People? Not so much.

  3. I’m very relieved as I read the comments. I felt a lot of guilt over suffering more over the death of my Labrador and my cat that died from HCM, than for my own mother. Reading other’s experiences is already giving me some peace. Thanks everbody.

  4. For some people, it may be the case, but not mine.

    I lost my dear wife of 33 years on Thanksgiving Eve several years ago. It was THE defining loss in my life after losing my parents and other relatives, friends, colleagues and our first child from miscarriage.

    Our dream of growing old together, having each other’s support and ongoing love, as well as future unrealized dreams was vaporized and is very bitter to accept. A nightmarish reality came in its place.

    I’m adapting to the changes, but I haven’t accepted it. As my wife was dying, we placed our child in a local group home and they promised us that this would be their ‘forever’ home. Alas, it was not meant to be. The group home broke its deathbed promise to my late wife and sent our child home because our child was ‘too much work’ for them. I was left becoming a single dad to a young, severely disabled child.

    We had a dog for our disabled child who, after getting injuring a year ago was euthanized at almost 16 years of age, dying in my arms. In contrast to what my late wife went through, our dog’s death was peaceful and serene. While initially very sad, it was also a relief that his suffering was over. People do not understand this ongoing nonfinite grief – but they aren’t living through what I have been living.

    In the last few years, I have progressively retreated from an increasingly distant, distracted and unfriendly world where it seems humanity has just gone mad.

    As George Washington said, “I would rather be alone than in the presence of bad company.”

    The cavalry is not coming.

  5. My father passed in Dec. 2009 and my boy Stimpy (German Shepard) layed at my Dad’s doorstep (that is next door) everyday for months afterwards. One evening I noticed Stimpy’s mouth was bleeding and I took him to our vet. Turned out he had cancer, so after surgery, the vet put him to sleep. I couldnt be there to hold him. The vet’s office is next door to the post office we visit each sunday for our mail. Each time I pass the vet’s office I remember walking him into the examining room and I feel such a sadness that I wasn’t there for his last moments. Its going on 13 years now.

  6. I have 2 dogs. Since my wife passed 6 years ago, we have become closer. They sleep with me, 75 pounds each, on my wife’s side. One is 10, the other 11. At my age, 74, do I find another pup?

  7. I can’t understand this. What has become of us, pets can be loved but they are not humans. We are more attached to animals than we are to family members and friends?
    Something is odd here, we are losing our humanity.

    1. with all due respect, clearly it is you that has lost your humanity, sir. the existence of your comment verifies this.

    2. NO…you are with your pet 24/7. My family all live far away and I see them a few times a year. My dog loved me more than anything on the planet…I have never felt such devotion from my own family. My dog was MY family…you obviously have never been loved by a dog or you no one would have to explain this to you. If my entire family were hanging on a cliff…I would have saved the dog. I love my boy Sawyer more than life itself, there is not a day that goes by I don’t think about him. Saddest day of my life is when he died.

  8. This world is in a crazed state. Animals are NOT children. They don’t disappoint because they don’t have the ability. It’s not. Because they’re better. America is gone and done. RIP

  9. I see it that when you lose a dog, they trust you so much and often you must put them down, and they sit or lie obediently trusting you. then you don’t know where they have gone? do they exist at all anywheref? For me as a Christian it is heartbreaking to think that the fall of man has caused animals to pay a price too, innocent as they are. I cry more when I put down a dog than when a person dies too, but you don’t miss them quite so long as you do a friend or family member.

  10. I’ve had quite a few pets over the years, but never felt as emotionally bonded to any over a human loss in my life. It was necessary in a couple cases to put them down myself. Having been around farming growing up may have resulted in a more detached view of animals. I take good care of them, remember them fondly and get another pet.

    I am not judging though, just a different viewpoint.

  11. I have lost my parents and my grandparents, and of course grieved them. But that grief was nothing compared to the grief I felt when I had my cat of 11 years put to sleep due to cancer.
    I held him in my arms while the vet administered the shot. When it was over I was absolutely devastated.
    Pets see you at your best and your worst, and unlike people, they offer unconditional love.

  12. Pets are perpetual children and do not have the intellectual capacity to lie or be evil and people bond to them emotionally, much as they would to a child, for a decade or more.

    The loss of a pet is therefore like the loss of a 3 year old child but amplified by time.

    The loss of an adult, even a spouse, will be tempered by their long life and they experiences they had in that life.

    1. I agree with you , and have made similar statements over the years, regarding the disposition of our pets.
      In particular, “There is no evil in them”, for me, is something I ponder a bit.
      They cannot be a source of betrayal, dishonesty, gossip, back stabbing or other things that occur in our human/ imperfect world.
      In some ways the friendship with a pet offsets much of the BS we humans deal with in our daily lives. In that sense they are wonderful therapy.

  13. I have never accepted the deaths of my 2 two dogs except with a feeling of guilt. I know that I could do nothing about the cancer. But to feel the last breath of your loved one as you hold her, you feel a part of your spirit and heart depart with them. As I type these words my eyes are filling with tears and they are running down my face.

    Hey Crystal, hey Jasmine, I still miss you so much it hurts. I wanted you here for the rest of my life. But I can only be grateful that I was there for your who lives.

    Love, Dad.

  14. If we feel nothing from the loss, then there was nothing ever there. The majority of us feel profound loss. That means that we lived by having them live intermingled with us. God put them there for us. When they are gone, we ought to feel thanks for them becoming part of our life in a meaningful way. I miss these animals who were part of who I am, shared good and bad moments with me, yet were always there for me. I tried to be too for them. Having a dog show unmistaken joy when you walk in the door after work, melts away a shitty day at work.

  15. I’ve lost my parents, some siblings and friends. None of them were as hard to take as the loss of my Springer Spaniel Molly. It’s been over a year and I still can’t go a week without balling when reminded of her.

  16. I greet the remains of my two dogs every morning, stop by them several time during the day and say good night and tell them how much I love them every night. I carry a small amount of their ashes with me all the time.

      1. I’m guessing nobody will mourn you when you die…The lack of empathy in your comment is extremely sad and a perfect example of how and why people like myself love and grieve more for animals then judgmental, cruel, hurtful, heartless humans.

  17. I can relate to the feeling like a murderer. They told me my dad was gone, brain dead, and not able to survive. He always told me he never wanted to be kept alive on a machine, so I consented to have it turned off. It’s been 5 years and I still feel as those I killed him. He was alive one minute, I made a decision for him, and he’s gone. It will always be my fault. Same as the pets I took to the vet. One minute there, the next snuffed out like a candle on my direction.

  18. Because they are like children. It’s kind of expected when someone passes in their 80s or 90s, but the loss of a pet is like grieving for a child way before its time.

  19. Hey. It’s not that hard.
    My cats have been dead for 20+ years and I expect to get over it any day now or maybe next year or sometime before the next decade begins.
    For sure.

  20. The loss of my ]miniature horse was more painful than anything else I have ever experienced and I have seen a lot of death in my lifetime.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *