Article by adjunct faculty, Dalma Heyn, Pet-Loss Grief Specialist, Psychotherapist
Among the questions pet parents ask me when their companion animal dies is
“Why am I suffering so much more with this death than with the death of my beloved uncle two years ago?”
Their concern is clear: Did I love my pet more than a human? A human family member, at that? If so, what does that say about me as a person? Or about my uncle? Or about my dog?
As with all questions about our most intense emotional responses, this one is multilayered. Let’s unpack just a few of the layers.
However sad it is when an elderly uncle or parent dies, it often feels to all concerned like a natural, even a good thing. He or she may have been ailing for months in the hospital or in hospice. Maybe he had expressed his distress at being ill; perhaps a desire not to continue living in pain. He may have admitted to not enjoying life anymore. Too, other people probably were involved in his care – family members, doctors and nurses, caregivers, aides – so no one person had sole responsibility for his care at the end.
Not so with a pet. We’re totally responsible for all elements of our animal’s life: every meal; snack; car ride; walk; play date; health decision; vet appointment; medical treatments; euthanasia decisions; every everything. Suddenly, this darling being whose dependence on us was absolute; and whose love was uncomplicated and unambivalent (and let’s face it, human relationships are complicated and filled with ambivalence); is no longer there. And the silence is deafening. “I didn’t notice her all the time because she was just there, downstairs and upstairs, for fifteen years,” one client sobbed when her Jack Russell died.
While we know we adore our cats and dogs (or our parrots and horses), we forget to factor in how much we will miss this daily, ongoing, constant caregiving. (That’s one reason why some people can’t stand to see a reminder of this – their pets’ water bowls or leashes – once they’re gone.) On one level we understand our pet’s importance to us, but on a deeper one, we don’t calculate how our care itself deepens our attachment. Suddenly, it’s all gone. And we are flooded with a hole in our lives and our hearts.
Our pet’s personality – her idiosyncratic tilt of her head; her little sleep movements and noises; her joy at going outside – is, we realize, irreplaceable. Yes, we knew she would die before we died. But this pet, this personality, this particular goofy little fellow whose love for us was unconditional…..has vanished. And it hurts so much more than we thought.
Finally, let’s face it, we are not a culture that believes a pet’s death will affect us so deeply. It actually downplays pet love and pets themselves. Friends will say “Hey, it’s just a cat!”, or “Go get a new puppy; that will take your old dog’s place.” It’s a shock to realize that what’s breaking your heart is not considered an event to feel heartbroken over; worse, that the object of your affection is not worth quite that much love.
But we know better, and what we can and must do is take our own pain seriously. Heartbreak requires attention. Grief –the process of resolving pet loss successfully – IS that attention. We pay a price when we ignore it.
Until next time….
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Dalma Heyn, MSW, LMSW, is a therapist, author and certified pet-loss grief specialist, who lives at the Connecticut shore with her scruffy, fluffy Havanese, Luna. Dalma graduated from The University of Southern California with a degree in psychology and English, and from New York University with a MA degree in social work.
Speaking and writing about human intimate relationships for so many years brought her to another kind of intimate relationship: the one we have with our companion animals. Dalma finds that many aspects of this love are woefully underestimated, for reasons she discusses here with other passionate readers on this site. Her mission is to shed light on this important reciprocal love–which she believes can transform the inevitable loss of our pets from an unbearable experience to a meaningful and healing one. Dalma is now available for consultations for our members.