Animals and Grief
Part I: With 68 million U.S. households choosing to share their lives with an animal, it is no wonder that much has been written about animals and grief. In this three-part series, we will first explore how animals help us move through our grief. Next, we will learn about grief after the loss of our pet, and finally we will look at how animals grieve. First, let’s explore how animals, whether watching them in the wild, or snuggling with them on the couch, helps us during our grief.
Animals increase our happiness by providing a positive relationship. When we are grieving, animals are especially valuable because they offer companionship without expectation. Being around friends and family may be stressful during our grief journey, as uncomfortable questions and comments can be made, and expectations of behavior often causes anxiety. Having a cat in your lap or going for a trail ride is an interaction without questions and expectations. Animals allow us to be who we are, and feel what we feel, without judgment. As English novelist George Eliot said, “Animals are such agreeable friends. They ask no questions, they pass no criticisms.”
There is science behind animals and grief relief. Numerous studies have shown that our levels of oxytocin, beta endorphins, and dopamine, chemicals that are essential to our feelings of well-being, rise dramatically when we interact with animals. That expains why animal-assisted therapy is immensely popular across the globe.
Studies have shown that dogs, and even the most aloof cats, can sense our sadness and adjust their behavior to our mood. A study published by the University of London found that dogs are more likely to approach a crying person than a talking person, and that they approach the crying person with submissive behavior. This seems to indicate that dogs offer us compassion in our grief.
There are many ways to experience the joys of animal companionship. Adopt a dog or cat. Watch birds on a nature walk. Take horseback riding lessons or go on a trail ride. Offer to walk shelter dogs. Find a farm sanctuary or horse rescue that needs volunteers. Go to goat yoga or a cat café. The more animal experiences we bring into our lives, the more we can feel them uplifting our souls.
Part II: Grieving the Loss of a Pet
Grieving the loss of a pet has an added burden. We fear that people will dismiss our pain because “it’s just an animal.” We hide our feelings because although the pain feels enormous, we think the loss looks small in comparison to other people’s human losses.
When we feel that grieving the loss of our pet is not a worthwhile grief, we risk what psychologists refer to as “disenfranchised grief.” This is a grief that is minimized and unacknowledged. It is a loss that might be seen as insignificant and therefore we hide it. The grief journey is a healthy process, but when grief is disenfranchised, it can interrupt a healthy grief journey. Thankfully, there are ways to cope with the loss of a pet that put our journey back on track.
First, acknowledge that the pain is real, justifiable, heart-wrenching pain. If someone dismisses that pain, it is likely because that person has never experienced the deep love we have for our pets. Be glad to have experienced that love.
Reach out to others who understand the pain. Whether in person or online, there are groups with similar shared experience who welcome us to share our grief journey. The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement “APLB” (APLB.org) offers resources as well as an online chat room to connect with those who understand our pain. Social media groups offer a place to share our feelings. Locate a pet loss counselor near you for one on one time.
Consider memorializing the loss. There are companies who will place a small amount of cremains in a charm for to have as jewelry. Donate to an animal welfare nonprofit organization. Have a painting or a t-shirt made from a treasured photograph. In today’s digital age, it costs little to make a keepsake from a photograph.
There are no cost ways to memorializing our pet as well. Organize a day when family and friends gather to volunteer at a shelter or clean up a park. Write a tribute to help process the grief. Post the tribute with favorite photos on social media.
Give it time. Grieving a pet is real pain that takes time to heal. There is no one-size-fits-all timeline. A family of four humans who is grieving the loss of one dog, will have four different timelines for grieving the one dog.
English novelist Sir Walter Scott understood our grief and famously wrote “I have sometimes thought of the final cause of dogs having such short lives and I am quite satisfied it is in compassion to the human race; for if we suffer so much in losing a dog after an acquaintance of ten or twelve years, what would it be if they were to live double that time? The misery of keeping a dog is his dying so soon. But, to be sure, if he lived for fifty years and then died, what would become of me?”
Part III Animals Grieve Also
Animals grieve the loss of their animal and human friends. Not all animals of one species grieve the exact same way, just as not all humans grieve the exact same way. However, just as humans go through similar grief journeys, there are species-specific grief behaviors that animals exhibit as well.
How Animals Grieve, a book by noted author and anthropologist, Barbara J. King, identifies how different species have been observed exhibiting grief. Elephants from different families will visit, smell and touch the deceased elephant. Birds bury their dead under grass and twigs, and make unique chirping noises. Monkeys have been seen cleaning their deceased offspring. Cats may pace and wail. Dogs may sleep more, not be willing to play as usual, have indoor potty accidents, or lose their appetite.
Be mindful of the right to be on ones own grief journey. If a dog is not showing grief, do not assume that the dog is not grieving. Just as people grieve differently, so do animals. Sometimes, due to anthropomorphism (assigning human traits to animals), we look for human grief actions in animals. While a dog might not seem sad, it could very well be grieving the loss of an animal or human companion in a way that a human cannot readily observe or appreciate. Pets may grieve for weeks, or even months. A prolonged grief period, however, may be a sign that a veterinary appointment is needed for a health check-up.
Just as you show compassion to your friend or family who is grieving a loss, show compassion to your pet who is grieving the loss of a human or animal companion. Give your pet affection, quiet time, exercise, and the comfort of a routine. Do more of what your pet loves to do, such as ball chasing, walks, or performing tricks for treats. Spend more time with your pet, and meet unusual behavior such as marking or chewing with compassion. Most importantly, give your pet understanding.