exploring the hidden pain of pet loss

Exploring the Hidden Pain of Pet Loss

Written by Steph McCulloch
"The loss of that paw on your knee or the weight of the cat at the bottom of the bed and the silence that follows is life-altering. That grief needs to be worked through, felt, released and processed for each person to reach some level of peace.”
a dog jumping up at his owner against an outdoor backdrop

Anyone who has lost a beloved pet knows the dull heartache and sadness that follows you like a dark cloud for months - and even years on end. For many of us, it’s comparable to losing a member of the family, but why does it feel like, in wider society, the loss of a pet isn’t taken seriously when it can affect us in a multitude of ways, often leading to intense feelings of loneliness and isolation?

Perhaps many can relate to the poor attempts of consolation by friends or family who don’t own pets when they say things like, “You can always get another one”. Not only does this fail to recognise the individualism of our pets and their unique personalities, but it minimises the bond, experiences and memories shared. Simply replacing them as if they were objects no longer in use isn’t an option.

Is it time to accept that we live in a world which doesn’t recognise, or at least respect pet grief and bereavement? Or can we challenge this perception and begin to recognise it for the painful and valid experience it is?

a woman and her jack russell high fiving

When I lost my first dog, Basil, during lockdown, I felt incredibly lonely. No one around me could really relate to what I was experiencing and though I garnered people’s sympathy, I felt like I had nowhere to turn to for support and had to just ‘get over it’ as quickly as possible. There wasn’t a single person alive who truly understood the relationship I shared with my dog quite like me, so what was I suddenly supposed to do with all of these feelings?

Another part of me, ashamedly, felt silly. I hadn’t lost a human companion, did it really warrant being so upset? The good news is that I can proudly look back now and say, yes, it did. I remember thinking at the time, “Why does no one talk about this?”. We treasure our pets for years and create some of our happiest memories with them - when they pass on what are we meant to do? Eventually, the cliches caught up to me and time did heal the biggest wound. However, I made a promise to myself that I would never feel so isolated by pet death again. No matter what or who you feel love for, if they are lost, you will grieve.

For some people, losing a pet is arguably worse than losing a human companion. Why? Because our relationships with pets are pure, uncomplicated and unconditional. The relationship we share with pets differs from human connections because they thrive from silent understanding and a comforting routine. Unlike the death of a human relative or friend where grief can be complex and challenging, the grief we experience from pet loss is different. The latter kind of grief comes from knowing our unconditional love is gone forever.

Losing a pet can also feel like losing a piece of your identity - and this takes time to heal from. It can feel incredibly difficult to go to work, maintain commitments and even continue with mundane tasks like food shopping without feeling as though the weight of your heart is going to drag you down. For many of us, the loss of a pet makes our entire world stop turning and it often feels as though it will never spin again. Let this serve as a reminder that it’s okay to allow yourself all the time and space you need.

Our pets often allow us to share solace and celebration of mundane moments simply because of their comforting presence. When this is suddenly gone, intense feelings of anxiety and loneliness are usually not too far behind. Our position as a caregiver is suddenly no longer required and we’ve essentially been let go from a job which we adored and excelled at. This void of purpose is what typically makes pet grief so intimate and melancholy. For many pet owners, the question suddenly becomes “Where can I put all of this love?”.

a cat basking in the sun

Kirsty is a Customer Champion here at Waggel and deals directly with death and loss claims. In her own words, Kirsty writes,

“It’s a funny thing, grief, it’s something we all share and it’s something everyone experiences, but we do it so personally, grief is different for each of us. When we experience collective joy or happiness, we can be confident those around us will feel roughly the same as we do. But grief doesn’t follow that pattern, grief encompasses robotic organisation; weepy, sluggish realisation; the feeling of utter loss and darkness; and even anger. All of these feelings are valid, it’s personal and as individual as your fingerprint.

When society finds out you have suffered a personal loss, they extend condolences, “We’re so sorry for your loss” or “Do you need time?” - but why doesn’t this extend to pets?

I lost my dog, Doodle, two years ago on June 11th, that day will be forever etched in my brain; he had been my companion for 14 years. He came to work with me, if I sat down, he was at my side, when I went to bed, he laid next to me, when I got in the bath, he laid on the bath mat and when I spent nights walking laps and feeling uncomfortable through three pregnancies, he walked with me, all night, without question. He was my secret keeper, protector and part of me. His loss left a hole in my life that can never be filled. I spent more time with him than any other member of my family. 

Yet when I lost him people said, “You can always get a puppy” but if I lost my husband no one would say, “You can marry again”. Why is pet grief so stigmatised, why are the souls and companionship of animals seen as replaceable by society? The loss of that paw on your knee or the weight of the cat at the bottom of the bed and the silence that follows is life-altering. That grief needs to be worked through, felt, released and processed for each person to reach some level of peace.”

a dalmatian licking his owners cheek

Mourning and grieving is a personal experience that takes time to work through, just like Kirsty writes. Taking time to gain closure and celebrate the life of your pet is one way you can begin the healing process. Recognising that, for some people, pet loss can feel sadder than human loss is also okay too. One of the reasons for this is that human loss is often shared and understood whilst pet loss is a road usually travelled alone. It can feel isolating and unbearable. Everyone experiences grief differently and there is no right or wrong way to feel. When an animal companion leaves an irreplaceable space in our lives, it deserves recognition. Seeking community during this time can also be incredibly rewarding. Those who have worked through pet grief and those who are still struggling are out there, ready to listen and offer comfort.

For people like Kirsty who work closely with bereaved pet owners, the feeling of grief is understood all too well.

“The grief you feel when you lose a pet is valid, it’s real and painful and world-destroying. It should not be dismissed, downplayed, ignored or unrecognised. Every death claim that I process I do so with empathy. Each person should be allowed to grieve as they need to. If you need to be practical, I will help you. If you need to talk, I will listen - and if you don’t then that’s fine too.

We deal with death claims with speed and efficiency because no one wants to think about paperwork while they are grieving. You will talk directly to your Customer Champion, be that me or one of my colleagues. Here at Waggel, your grief is valid, we accept it, understand it and do everything we can to respect your need to grieve how you need to. You have lost a family member and that family member is not just paperwork to us, they were an important part of your life. You deserve respect, understanding, empathy and help. And all of my colleagues strive to make sure you feel that at such a difficult time in your pet ownership journey.”

It’s a fact that pet grief is strangely misunderstood - but instead of feeling embarrassed or ashamed of just how sad we feel about the loss of a pet, we should be proud of our ability to love so deeply and recognise the privilege of sharing a love so powerful and life-changing. There also lies the comfort of being able to reminisce and remember our pets in all of their glory until it eventually becomes time for us to pass on and join them wherever they may be.

Waggel Pet Insurance

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