Why is dealing with the death of a pet so hard? Fluffy or Fido is just an animal, right? So what’s the big deal? Many people who didn’t grow up with pets often don’t understand and will say something insensitive: “Why are you so upset? Your dog died. It’s not like it’s your mother!”
What’s the big deal if a pet dies? Let’s look at what pets add.
But pets add warmth, companionship, entertainment, and caring to our lives. They become a part of the family. So the death of a pet is a loss. A person who hasn’t had much satisfying human companionship may put all of his or her love into the relationship with the pet. The relationship with the pet may be the only time the person has experienced unconditional love. The death of this person’s pet can be an even larger loss.
A person who has difficulty being vulnerable and loving toward other people may let down their guard and talk baby talk to a pet. He or she may find a place of empathy toward an animal, despite being unable to do so toward another person. An acquaintance who didn’t cry when his difficult parents died became unglued when his cat died.
Marc Maron is prickly. His cats helped make him less so.
Comedian and pioneering podcaster Marc Maron has spoken at length about his prickly personality and consequent difficulties with interpersonal relationships. He has rescued a number of cats over the years, including feral ones that are as temperamental as he is! In December 2019 Maron spoke on-air and wrote about his feelings of sadness and loss when he had to euthanize his elderly cat, LaFonda:
I’m okay, just sad. Grief. Real grief. It’s appropriate and not all consuming but it’s still hard. It’s over the loss of my friend, my cat, LaFonda.
I didn’t know if I would cry but, man, I did. She went lifeless while I was holding her. It was a terrible but beautiful event. It felt right but devastating. I will get her ashes next week. I will remember her always.
I was the crying man leaving the vet’s office with an empty carrier.
Once a person is able to feel empathy toward an animal, that empathy can then be developed and generalized to people. The potential softening and connection that difficult people may begin to experience in the company of animals is the foundation of prison programs that pair inmates with animals to raise and train, including Puppies Behind Bars, Wild Horse Inmate Program, and Larch Cat Adoption Program.
Loss can be cumulative.
For someone who’s had a number of deaths or other traumatic events, a pet’s death may reactivate the traumatic response. The intense feelings of loss associated with the death of a loved family member or friend may be displaced onto the pet that dies.
In this way the death of a pet may be experienced as the latest in a series of losses, in a cumulative way. Confessional poet Anne Sexton wrote about pain as a cumulative experience in one of her many dark poems, “The Big Boots of Pain,” excerpted below:
I find now, swallowing one teaspoon
of pain, that it drops downward
to the past where it mixes
with last year’s cupful
and downward into a decade’s quart
and downward into a lifetime’s ocean.
Practical tips to mourn the death of a pet.
That way of looking at death or other painful losses leads to a dark hole of despair. Better not to think of multiple losses in a way that results in piling on pain, but to take them singly, if possible, to avoid getting overwhelmed.
How can you mourn the death of your pet? Give yourself time to look at photos and think of your pet’s particular personality quirks. Think about the things you learned from your pet: the routines you put in place because dogs do better with structure (so do humans!), the importance of taking time to decompress, as you played with or snuggled with your cat.
Think about and appreciate the life changes you experienced during your pet’s lifetime: marrying your spouse; watching your child or children grow up; changing jobs; moving across the country; mourning a break up during which your pet provided furry comfort; seeing your child develop empathy through loving the family pet.
Be gentle with yourself and know you may tear up unexpectedly. Accept that this is okay and won’t last forever. Grief comes in waves. Sometimes the waves are overpowering, sometimes mere ripples. Let the loving people in your life be there for you. Stay busy and know that it’s okay to grieve in manageable chunks while continuing to live your life.
And if you feel overwhelmed by the sense of loss or find that you’re not coping effectively, don’t hesitate to get professional help. It can make a big difference in dealing with your pet’s death in a productive way.
How to help your friend whose pet died.
So how should you respond to a friend or loved one whose pet has died? Treat the death as the loss that it is by acknowledging it. Ask the person if they’d like to tell you about the pet or show you a favorite photo of the pet on their phone. If you’ve met the pet, share some of your memories of the pet: How proud the cat looked carrying the feathered toy bird. How high the dog jumped to catch the frisbee in the park. Send a card and/or flowers.
A good friend had a spunky Jack Russell terrier (that description may be redundant!). When the dog died after a full life, another friend who was a poet wrote a lovely poem about the dog, which meant the world to the bereaved friend. Use your talents to help your friend, whether you make a drawing or bake cookies. The point is to do something, rather than ignore the pet’s death because “it’s only an animal.” Donate to the Humane Society, ASPCA, or other animal-related organization in your friend’s name.
And if your friend is having trouble regrouping emotionally, if he or she seems lost in the pain of dealing with the death of a pet, do your friend a favor and suggest getting professional help.