Compassion for Those Who Have Lost Animals

Grief is a complicated thing, with a series of social strictures about how grieving people are supposed to behave when they lose friends, loved ones, family members. These usually revolve around ‘getting over it’ and ‘getting back to business’ as though nothing has happened, requiring people to suffocate their grief in a tiny box and put it away somewhere, never to be examined or dealt with — and we wonder why we live in a world that isn’t entirely emotionally healthy.

These rules shift, though, when people lose the animals in their lives, becoming even more callous and brutal. ‘Just get another one’ or ‘so, when are you getting another’ pop up almost immediately as soon as an animal passes, followed by comments about how people need to get over it, and it was ‘just a cat/dog/horse/parrot,’ and how it wasn’t that big a deal. The age of the animal, or the time the person spent with the animal, isn’t relevant — the cat someone grew up with has as much emotional value as a box of tissue paper, the horse someone learned to ride on and spent 26 years with is meaningless.

Just get over it. Just get a new one. Hurry up. Why are you making people uncomfortable with your grief? For Pete’s sake, this is ridiculous. It’s not like it was a person.

For those who have never experienced the loss of an animal, I have news for you: It can be a huge, intense, life-changing event. And yes, it can be as intense as losing a person you love, sometimes more so, depending on the circumstances. It can be horrific and awful and terrible, and one of the reasons it’s so dreadful is because very few people around you treat you with compassion and respect, and few want to engage with the fact that you are grieving and that you were deeply attached to the animal you lost.

Not everyone feels the same way about animals, and we live in a conflicted culture when it comes to animals. But the loss of an animal can truly destroy you, especially if you never lost an animal in childhood. You’re unprepared for how searing and intense the experience is, because there’s never been anything to prepare you, other than a society that tells you all about how you shouldn’t be that upset when your pets die — a society that makes pet death into a laughing matter on sitcoms and something people are supposed to joke about, not as a macabre coping mechanism, but in a way that mocks and belittles people who experience genuine pain on the event of a death.

Grief strikes people dramatically differently, and there’s nothing wrong or dysfunctional with people who grieve deeply when their animals die and struggle for a while to come to terms with it. There is something wrong with telling them they need to get over it, and with refusing to recognise the natural course of grief. Someone who’s still crying three days after she lost a beloved animal isn’t being ridiculous — although complicated grief can arise with pet deaths just as in human ones and sometimes people experiencing extended grief that they feel interferes with their quality of life and ability to function can benefit from therapy and other options, like grief support groups.

Grief, however, would be much easier if the people around could muster some compassion, instead of coldness. So, maybe you don’t need to bake funeral casseroles that will be thrown out anyway, but try saying ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ or sending a card. Try offering support or assistance with tasks like picking stuff up at the store. Let people know that it is okay to be sad, and that there is nothing wrong with them for experiencing acute grief. People very rarely get this message when they’re grieving other people, let alone the animals in their lives, and it can really help them cope with and manage their grief better.

Working through grief at the time is much easier when you feel supported, and addressing grief instead of avoiding it can be much more beneficial for long-term mental health. And, yes, to all of you out there who think people should ‘get over it’ and ‘move on,’ taking grief on helps people feel like they’re more in control of their lives, and better able to function. Pressuring them to fake it for you, though, or to ignore the very real pressures in their lives, doesn’t fly, and won’t be productive. Instead, it’s up to you to meet them in the middle; don’t make nasty comments about how you can’t believe how dramatic they’re being, and instead, offer your support.

A bridge unsupported quickly falls, tumbling into a mass of stone or metal or wood, something that cannot sustain itself. It takes years to clean up, pick up, rebuild, and it will fall all over again if it’s not engineered properly. The same is true of grief, which can destroy someone if she doesn’t get support. This, too, is true of grief: No matter how long ago the wound was opened, it will always be there. It will take a long time to close, and someday it will scab over, and eventually scar over, but it will always be there. And that’s okay too, because our scars are what make us who we are.

Image: Marc Liu, Flickr.