The first time I lost an animal, I was 39 years old. It was my first pet, Lynx, who I adopted as a kitten when I graduated college at age 22. He was 17 when he passed and meant the world to me. I spent my childhood begging my parents for a pet. Other than a hamster, they never consented. So, as soon as I was able, I got Lynx. Losing him was heart-wrenching. I put him down on a Sunday and, at the time, was in a high-level job at a large corporation. I didn’t even think about taking Monday off. I remember thinking to myself, “no one will understand how heartbroken I am.” I also remember feeling slightly embarrassed about how devastated I was about losing a cat. After all, it wasn’t a human. But as I learned that day and am reminded each time I put down one of my beloved pets, it feels as bad as losing a beloved human. Sometimes it feels worse because, let’s be real, sometimes we’re closer to our pets than we are to humans.
Disenfranchised grief is common in pet owners and animal lovers. It is known as silent grief and occurs when we don’t feel validated for the grief and loss we feel and when we aren’t able to openly express our feelings because we assume that others will judge us, or our feelings will be misunderstood. In other words, it is grief that may not be accepted by societal norms. People often don’t know how to react to someone who is grieving. When it’s a loss that is not typically mourned in public (such as the loss of a pet), it creates even more discomfort for both the griever and others exposed to the grief. This discomfort can cause pet owners to hide their feelings. However, research shows that the grief of pet loss is sometimes the most heartbreaking loss one can experience (Marton et al., 2019).
As pet owners and animal lovers, we have a right to experience that loss and express our emotions, so we can fully process our grief and heal. I think it’s incumbent upon us not to add to the disenfranchisement of our grief by doing what I did many years ago when my cat passed away. Instead of assuming no one would understand and hiding the heartbreak, be open and honest about it with the people in your life – your friends, family, and colleagues. Sure, many of them may not understand, but I’ve found over the years that many of them will.
The day after my cat Lynx died, I went into work. My boss was aware that something was “off” with me and asked me if I was okay. When I told her that my cat died the day before, she was shocked that I came into the office. She was upset with me for not letting her know about it and not taking time away from work to grieve. She confirmed for me that first, many people do understand what it feels like to lose a pet. And second, what we’re feeling is real and valid.
The first step in acknowledging the validity of our feelings is recognizing and accepting them ourselves. When we do that and have compassion for ourselves, others’ responses have less impact on us. In fact, another person’s response to your feelings is almost always about them and not you.
What else can you do to not contribute to the disenfranchisement of grief related to pet loss?
First, grieve in a safe space. At first, this may be alone, in your home, or with your family members who are also grieving the loss of your pet. Of course, family members may grieve differently than you do, so it’s important to remember that everyone will experience and express the loss differently. There is no right or wrong way to do it.
Second, grieve with others who have also lost a pet. Pet loss support groups are a great way to connect with others who are experiencing a similar loss and who will understand and normalize how you feel. Other pet owners and animal lovers may also be supportive because they understand what it is like to lose a pet and how difficult it is.
Finally, as I said earlier (it’s worth repeating), acknowledge your feelings, and be compassionate with yourself. When we recognize and accept our feelings, it makes it easier to share them honestly with others. I think the reason I felt uncomfortable sharing my heartbreak when I lost Lynx was because I was shocked by it. Now, after having lost several other beloved pets since Lynx, I am much more likely to express my grief openly. My feelings of loss are as real as it gets, as are yours. Whether or not someone else understands this grief isn’t our responsibility. Our responsibility is to not contribute to the disenfranchisement of grief over pet loss. Our pets are our family, and I believe that by accepting and acknowledging how hard it is to lose them, we are fully honoring the joy they bring to our lives.
Marton, B., Kilbane, T., & Nelson-Becker, H. (2019). Exploring the loss and disenfranchised grief of animal care workers. Death Studies, 0(0), 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1080/07481187.2018.1519610