When Miranda’s chihuahua Pumpkin died of stomach cancer, she was inconsolable with grief. The 54-year-old graphic artist cried until she had no tears left. For weeks, if not months, she walked round in a daze, every part of her life reminding her of the pet she had loved, walked and cared for from being a puppy for 13 years.
‘To say my heart was broken would be an understatement,’ confides the mum-of-one. ‘All of me was broken. My grief felt so raw. I loved that little dog like he was a child. I just couldn’t imagine a life without him.
‘Even now, 18 months on, I still miss him. Coming home isn’t the same. He’s not there to greet me. Going for walks is still lovely but it would be better with Pumpkin. I miss everything about him – cuddling up watching television, watching him eat his food, taking him out in the car, his waggy tail and even taking him out to lunch. He was such a sweetheart.’
Miranda isn’t alone. Dr Katie Lawlor, a pet loss psychologist based in California, in the US, cites studies on pet grief which have revealed that 85 per cent of pet owners report feelings of loss and bereavement comparable to losing a member of the family. A third say they are still grieving after six months, and almost a quarter after a year.
US sociologist Andrea Laurent-Simpson goes a step further – in her book, Just Like Family: How Companion Animals Joined the Household (New York University Press), she reveals the American family structure is changing to include our pets. And broadcaster and author Dawn O’Porter touched hearts with her bold pet grief novel, Cat Lady, now a Sunday Times bestseller.
So why do we get so attached to our pets, whether it’s a stray little dog like Pumpkin we adopted, a cat with attitude who rules the house, a horse that we ride every day or a fluffy rabbit or guinea pig we love to cuddle?
Dubai-based life coach Amanda Davies says: ‘Our fur babies are our beloved pets, and we treat them just like they’re our children. Sometimes they take the place of children if we don’t have any.
‘As they are part of the family, we care, nurture and deeply love them. We kiss, snuggle and cuddle them. We spoil them and give them affectionate nicknames. Whether they’re a cat, dog or gerbil, we lavish them with treats and toys and even let them sleep on our beds with us.’
But why, when we often have partners and children, are they so important to us? ‘They play a variety of roles in our lives,’ continues Amanda. ‘They’re our companions and they give us unconditional love. Our homes are less lonely when there are two heartbeats in them.
‘In some cases, they’re great exercise companions, giving us a reason to go for a walk every day, and helping us to stay fit and healthy. Besides, it’s fun to throw a ball or stick for a dog or dangle a toy mouse for a cat.
‘As well as giving us physical affection – cuddling and petting a pet can reduce stress and improve our mood. Pets also teach children empathy and compassion and help them to develop social and emotional skills. They’re a lovely way for children to learn to look after another living being. But sadly, it’s also a way of introducing them to the reality of grief and loss.’
But while losing a pet is universally sad, we all react differently. One person may be like Miranda and go into a state of grief, while another might feel relieved their pet is no longer suffering and is at peace. Others simply shut the pet grief out and get another animal companion as quickly as possible.
Sara Mathews, a UK-based bereavement counsellor, says our reaction comes down to what our pet meant to us. ‘You might live alone, and your pet might be the only other living creature you see most days, or you could be a young family where the pet is part of a busy household,’ she says.
‘Your pet will have been part of your routine for years and formed the fabric of your daily life. You’ll get up in the morning, put the kettle on and feed your cat. You will miss things like cleaning the fish tank out or letting the hamster run up your sleeve.’
Guilt and Pet Grief
According to Amanda, pet grief runs the full gamut of emotions, from intense sorrow, pain, loss of appetite, crying and sleeplessness to a sense of emptiness and loneliness.
‘Some people also suffer from guilt,’ she says. ‘They wonder if they did enough for their pet, if they could have saved their lives, why this had to happen to them. They might feel anger at the unfairness of the loss, especially if their pet had a short life. There is sometimes relief too, especially if their pet was suffering from old age or an illness. But this relief is often coupled with guilt.’
If we lose our pet suddenly, we can be thrown into a state of shock. ‘It can make a difference if your pet dies suddenly, either from an illness or an accident,’ Amanda explains. ‘We can literally be blindsided. We can struggle to understand this abrupt, unexpected loss and it can take longer to work through the shock and trauma on top of sadness and grief. We might experience flashbacks, anxiety, trouble sleeping, anger and gut-wrenching loss and we can’t process the situation.’
Another sad situation is when we make the heartbreaking decision to euthanise our pets. ‘It’s a tender burden which I see as an act of love, when love becomes an act of self-sacrifice,’ says Sara. ‘Our pets can’t tell us when they’re in pain. We are their interpreter and it’s an intimate relationship. But when the time comes, we have to discharge our responsibilities and do the right thing for them.’
Sadly, for many, especially cat owners, there’s never a clear ending. When their feline friend goes missing, or if a pet is stolen, their pet parents are always looking, searching and wondering.
‘If your pet goes missing and never returns, it’s like you never get to know the end of the story,’ Sara explains. ‘Decades on, you might feel distress when you go back to the place where they were last seen. You’re left in limbo and the pain of grief may be harder to process.’
So how can we cope with this raw and tender grief? Amanda and Sara share their tips:
Respect Your Feelings
Don’t give yourself a hard time, says Sara. ‘Feelings are feelings, and it’s not silly or selfish to mourn the death of a pet,’ she says. ‘Talk to yourself in a kind and accepting way and allow yourself to feel the way you do. Don’t feel ashamed and don’t feel the need to hide your emotions.’
Step Up Your Self-care
Be gentle and don’t expect too much from yourself, advises Amanda. ‘Recognise you are grieving, and you need to process the grief,’ she says. ‘Eat healthily, stay hydrated, take time off work, gather support from sympathetic friends, do light exercise to boost endorphins and walk in nature. Write your feelings in a journal or do some art.’
Cope with Comments
Be polite and justify yourself if you feel the need, urges Amanda. ‘If someone tells you it was only a dog and you should pull yourself together, you can politely say: ‘She was a beloved member of our family and she was amazing company.’ Of course, we shouldn’t have to justify ourselves and it’s often easier to ignore those comments, as the person may not know what it’s like to lose a pet.’
Understand The Waves
Think of your grief as the waves of the sea, says Sara. ‘One minute you may be feeling all right, and the next you may be on the floor, crying,’ she says. ‘Grief is like that. Reminders will come and grief will wash over you unexpectedly. If you watch the waves at the sea, you’ll see it’s impossible to work out a pattern. You’ll get a low one, then a great big one. This is what grief is like and it’s normal.’
Make a memory book or a scrapbook with photos to remember your pet, recommends Amanda. ‘You might keep their collars, tags and favourite toys in a memory box, or create a necklace or bracelet with their name or paw print on,’ she says. ‘Some areas have pet cemeteries where you can have a memorial. You can go there with happy thoughts and memories. Or you might make a donation to an animal charity or plant a tree in memory of your pet.’
Release Your Emotions
Be sure to let out your feelings, says Sara. ‘Try and find a place where you can get away from people and have a good cry,’ she says. ‘Crying is a good way of discharging physiological distress, so you might cry in the shower or in the car. Or you might listen to music to help you discharge emotions.’