My husband and I recently made the heartbreaking decision to euthanize our eleven year old beloved dog Lucy. As we have grieved her loss the counselor part of me has been trying to make some sense of both the process of grief as well as psychological importance of the loss of a pet. I know all the research about how pets enhance our well-being. At this moment of loss the scales seem horribly tipped in favor of never experiencing this pain again.
One morning when I was feeling particularly sad about Lucy I remembered a client from years ago. This woman sought counseling following the death of both a parent and a sibling. She spoke powerfully of the months she had cared for her mother as she died. She stoically described caring for her brother as he too faced death just a few short months later. Then her eyes filled with tears and she began to sob as she spoke of the loss of her dog. She alternately expressed grief and foolishness. “Why should I be crying like this? He was just a dog! Right?” This sentiment is the crux of why more people do not disclose to their therapists or anyone else, the heartbreak of losing a pet.
The research I found contradicts the notion of pets as non-important and instead supports the idea that in America we consider our pets as significant attachment figures because they are part of our families. Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby may have been researching human to human attachment but their findings apply also to pets. Anyone who has ever loved an animal knows the extent and the power of this attachment. Why should therapists care about this issue? According to the Humane Society of the United States over 75 million Americans own dogs and over 88 million own cats (cats would beg to differ with who the owner really is but that’s another issue). The chances are any given counselor has several clients who are pet owners. Bruce Sharkin and Donna Knox wrote about the implications of pet loss for therapists in Professional Psychology; Research and Practice in 2003. They point out some significant facts that are worth review. To start with the grief response is similar whether we are grieving a significant person or an animal. We feel numbness, guilt, sadness and depression as we process the loss. We may feel exceptionally guilty if we’ve made the decision to euthanize our pet.
Those of us who live alone may have the most difficulty coping with this loss. One significant factor in aiding recovery is the degree of understanding received from others. Over the past few weeks I have found it extremely helpful to receive kind comments from others about our loss. At first I cried openly at these comments and now I take comfort. Women may experience the loss more intensely than men. Although one man, in expressing his condolences, stated that it took him over five years to get over the death of his first dog. He looked very sad as he told about this loss. The implications for professionals include: asking about pet ownership and pet attachment at intake. This made such common sense to me that I can’t believe it never occurred to me to ask for this information. When people consider a pet as part of the family this is important information. Another implication is understanding the attachment to the pet.
Lucy was more than ‘just a dog’. Lucy is intricately interwoven in my memories of my daughter’s childhood. Lucy’s loss also represents the loss of this linkage to the past. The third implication is for therapists to help clients acknowledge their loss. This is very difficult to do if I am afraid your response will be negative. As we were making our decision I began to cry and the kind assistants in the office allowed and encouraged me to do so. I am thankful that I have not had the experience from anyone telling me she was just a dog and so I shouldn’t feel this way. We feel the way we feel and being able to explore our pain honestly and openly is what therapy is all about. Good therapy supports and invites healthy coping whether it is coping with the loss of a person, a job, or a pet. Each day that passes makes Lucy’s loss more bearable and the pain less acute. I hope that reading this blog will enable someone to support a grieving pet owner with more sensitivity. There are millions of us out there counting on it!
Patricia Myers is a counselor, an associate professor of counselor education, and a doctoral student.