I just finished a wonderful little book on Pet Grief: Saying Good-bye to the Pet You Love by Lorri A. Greene, Ph.D. and Jacquelyn Landis.
The authors discuss why some people suffer profoundly on the loss of a pet, while others get a little misty-eyed for a moment and then move on. The answer is intuitive, and you already know it: the deeper the bond, the deeper the grief. However, what these authors add is a way of quantifying that bond. The book provides a quiz to help you understand if you are “conventionally bonded,” “intensely bonded,” or “uniquely bonded” to your animal friend.
Some people, of course, are not bonded at all with the pet. The dog is there to bark if a stranger comes; the cat is there to catch mice. The pets may be left outside a good deal of the time. An animal is an animal, and the non-bonded person really doesn’t think much about the subject.
The” conventionally bonded” pet owner takes good care of the animal, exercising him, taking him to the vet as needed. When the animal passes on, he may have some kind of a memorial ceremony, perhaps scattering the ashes in the yard, and tears may flow. Then, it’s back to the demands of daily life, and the pet is remembered fondly.
The “intensely bonded” think of their pet as a full family member. They may prepare special food for their animal friend, and enjoy watching him or her eat. The pet may sleep with the person, and is involved in as many family activities as possible, probably even posing in the family photo. The intensely bonded suffer the loss of this relationship very deeply.
Those who are uniquely bonded think of their animal companion as their “little girl,” their “son” or “daughter,” or their “soul mate.” In my practice and in my experience with pet grief groups, I have seen that this is often so. One person even described his deceased dog as “part of his identity. “ I have seen some animal-human duos in which I felt that the animal might have represented the person’s inner child, and was giving the person the opportunity to nurture that part of himself. The uniquely bonded person has the conviction that his animal understands him better than most people do. The person may prefer the company of his animal friend to that of many people, finding it consistently warm, comforting and supportive, unlike some human relationships. The uniquely bonded person will spare no expense when it comes to the medical care of his animal friend. When the time comes to say good-bye, the grief is so profound, that the person may have a very hard time recovering.
Of these three types of bonds which Greene describes, none is the “right” or “wrong” bond. They merely provide a way of understanding why Pet Grief is so devastating for some people, and has only a minor effect on others.
You may find yourself grieving more deeply over one animal friend than another. No doubt you connected to one animal more deeply than another; perhaps also the depth of the grief had something to do with other issues in your life at the time; it’s not only what the animal meant to you, but also what the circumstances of the death meant to you.
It’s a good idea to get therapy if you find that you feel you are “stuck” in grief, or simply need support.
Make sure your chosen therapist understands pet grief, and is not going to assume that you can’t be “that upset about an animal,” and try to make your sadness about something else. Of course, there may be something else. But the death of such an important friend and support in your life is enough reason to feel what some people describe as “lost,” “crushed,” “devastated,” and “without purpose.”
Please believe, your heart can heal. It may not seem like it ever will.
You need a space to talk about your animal friend, to mourn without anyone trying to talk you out of that process, to acknowledge the significance of the loss.
Then there will eventually come a day when you remember your animal friend with more joy than sorrow.