‘It’s only an animal, get over it!’ is a cruel and heartless comment, but one that those grieving the death of a beloved companion animal are all too often confronted with. Even when friends, family, teachers, social workers, and colleagues are more tactful, it is often the case that many people simply do not understand the impact of losing a beloved pet.
2-8 December is National Grief Awareness Week, spearheaded by The Good Grief Trust who share many wonderful resources to raise awareness and provide support to the bereaved. In this post Kris Hill from the Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS) raises awareness of companion animal loss and shares some resources that may help those suffering.
Research has shown that we can mourn the loss of beloved companion animals as deeply as humans, and in much the same way. Loss of an animal companion can be especially difficult for socially isolated individuals. For example, to an older person who has lost a spouse, had family move away, and outlived many of their friends, a cat or dog may be their only source of regular companionship. Unfortunately, some people do not understand the special bond that can form between pets and people and the bereaved may be left with little or no support or understanding.
Disenfranchised grief is a term coined to describe ‘the grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not, or cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned, or socially supported’ (Doka, 1989, p. 4). Disenfranchisement can result from unrecognised or trivialised relationships, such as those between pets and people.
A lack of support during the grieving process can prolong the emotional pain. To those who are grieving we encourage you to reach out to others who have lost their pets, as they are most likely to empathise. SCAS have a series of bereavement leaflets for teachers, parents and employers which can be freely downloaded.
There are also online message boards and pet loss support groups where you can share your loss with others who understand. There are also professional services who acknowledge the importance of the human-companion animal bond. Some of these are free, such as the Blue Cross Pet Bereavement Support Service who provide freely downloadable resources.
Not just about death!
Grief can take many forms. We grieve not only those we lose through death, but separation due to theft, straying, marriage/relationship breakdowns, or reluctant relinquishment can be just as devastating. In the case of theft or straying this is compounded by a lack of closure and not knowing what has become of them. Forced relinquishment can be especially traumatic, and ‘Pets in Housing’ remains a key issue addressed by SCAS. Read more about the hidden anguish of tenants forced to choose between housing and keeping their pets.
Furthermore, people entering care homes or assisted-living facilities have already experienced great loss (of independence, mobility, health, and oftentimes a lifelong partner). In these times, parting with a beloved companion animal might be too much to bear, especially if there are no family members or close friends willing and able to adopt them. Older animals are also harder for animal shelters to rehome and may live out the remainder of their lives there.
This kind of grief can often be prevented. In 2023 SCAS and Fostering Compassion launched the Bob Harvey Award to recognise care facilities that go above and beyond to keep pets and people together.
In 2020 SCAS funded research that developed a comprehensive multi-species risk management tool to enable people to bring their companion animals into residential care. This freely available tool kit can be adapted to a range of contexts. Download the ‘Safe Animal Friendly Environments (SAFE) Tool’ here.
For many people, the loss of a childhood pet is their first experience of death. SCAS has funded research into a better understanding of children’s experiences and how parents might best support them: How best to say goodbye?, exploring new ways of enfranchising childhood experiences of grief following the loss of nonhuman life or the termination of a nonhuman supportive relationship.
The loss of a companion animal can be distressing for children and may well affect a child’s ability to focus and concentrate in the classroom. Together with Fostering Compassion, SCAS has produced a free downloadable publication that provides guidance for teachers on supporting a child suffering this type of grief: Creating Compassionate Classrooms, Children and pet loss: Guidance for teachers.
‘Attachment theory’ explains continuing bonds as continued attachment with your loved one, despite their physical death, through an emotional, spiritual, or cognitive attachment. Continuing bonds with the deceased are maintained through memories, possessions, the desire to carry on a legacy, or to complete the tasks in memory of the deceased loved one.
Here are some ideas that may resonate with you, including a pawprint, jewellery, portraits, toys as keepsakes, urns, burial ceremonies, tattoos, or causes dedicated to their namesake. Many also find comfort in ‘The Rainbow Bridge’ which is a concept derived from a beautiful poem whose authorship for many years has remained unknown.
Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge. When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, your pet goes to Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends…(read the full poem here)
Following the death of my cat Sophie, I wrote about my own experience of anticipatory grief and memorialisation. This essay relates my lived experience with research I had undertaken on companion animal memorial tattoos.
Talking about Sophie and sharing my experience was cathartic. However, my grief following the sudden death of Yoder (2005-2021) was completely different and one I did not want to write about or talk with anyone who was not close to me.
Whatever you feel, remember there is no ‘correct’ way to ‘feel’ or respond to a loss.
Resources and Support for Coping with Pet Loss
There are many leaflets and books available about pet loss from SCAS and other sources.
Pet Bereavement Support:
In 1994 SCAS launched the Pet Loss Support Service (later renamed the Pet Bereavement Support Service, PBSS) following seminal research conducted by Dr Mary Stewart, a “mother” figure in human-animal interactions. Mary is a veterinary graduate of Cornell University and came to Scotland to join the Veterinary Faculty of Glasgow University in 1952. Mary was a founder member of SCAS and served on our board for many years. She was a lecturer at the University of Glasgow Veterinary School. In 2022 Dr Mary Stewart was awarded the RCVS Queen’s Medal, the highest honour that the RCVS can bestow upon an individual veterinary surgeon, in recognition of a highly distinguished career with sustained and outstanding achievements throughout.
Between 1998 and 2013 the PBSS was jointly run by SCAS and Blue Cross. Since 1st January 2013, the PBSS is solely run by Blue Cross.
An oft overlooked aspect of grief is the loss felt by our companion animals. However, our pets do mourn the loss of their owners as well as that of other animals they have bonded with.
Signs to look out for in the surviving animal are social withdrawal, failing to eat and sleep, increased or reduced grooming habits, and exhibiting species-specific evidence of emotional distress. Here are some tips on how to comfort and help your companion adjust.
Greyfriars Bobby touched the hearts of Edinburgh locals when he refused to leave his master’s grave, even in the worst weather conditions. The statue depicted above was sculpted by William Brody in 1873, the year after Bobby’s death.
SCAS is the UK’s leading human-companion animal bond organisation through funding research, providing education, raising awareness, encouraging best practice, and influencing the development of policies and practices that support the human-companion animal bond. For more details check out our website at www.scas.org.uk