Article by adjunct faculty, Dalma Heyn, Pet-Loss Grief Specialist, Psychotherapist
QUESTION: Why is grieving the loss of a beloved pet different from grieving the loss of a beloved relative or friend?
The answers lie largely in our culture’s perception of whom we should love; whom we should honor when they die; and how much pain we should be in when they do.
No one questions the importance of the loss of our human loved ones. We have rituals that honor them; a grace period to allow us to mourn. And, even if that grace period proves insufficient for the mourner (and I will go on record here saying it IS insufficient), it at least validates the process and sanctions the pain.
Not so for those who lose a companion animal. Family members and friends often question the importance of the pet, and so, discount the depth of the grief the pet parent goes through.
“Hey, it’s just a cat! Get another one!”, they say. Or,“it’s been a month. Time to move on.”
This lack of understanding of our bond with our pets is not only undermining, it leaves us feeling misunderstood and alienated. (We’ll talk more about this phenomenon—known as “disenfranchised grief”–in other blog posts.) No one means to be cruel, but invalidating both the object of our grief, our connection to him or her, and the depth of our pain, can make us reluctant and ashamed to express that pain.
And therein lies a huge problem.
It’s a psychological truth that burying feelings only intensifies them.
Unprocessed, they will return and return and return. I know people who, having swallowed their pain for years, still weep uncontrollably at a mention of a pet they buried decades ago. So please, remember: No one has the right to belittle either the worthiness of your pet to receive so much emotion, nor to belittle you for feeling so much emotion. Grieving is a process of healing, and healing requires that you process your feelings so you can “move on.”
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.