By Nadja Lubiw-Hazard, DVM
Part one of a four-part series on Animal-Related Grief
The human-animal bond, although different than relationships with members of the same species, is worthy of the same affirmation, validation, and respect as any other relationship. Animal companionship has enormous physical, emotional, psychological and social benefits for both guardians and their companions. The loss of a bond with a companion animal can be the source of tremendous grief. Whether missing, surrendered, re-homed or passed on, this loss can feel overwhelming. It may also be connected to a significant event in the animal guardian’s life, like a divorce or separation, an illness or disability, or financial struggles. This grief can cause emotional turmoil, including sorrow, anguish, dejection, anger, guilt, loneliness, pining and searching, flashbacks, emptiness; a disruption of daily routines; changes in sleeping patterns; loss of appetite; reduced participation of daily routines; job related difficulties; loss of motivation; intense depression and anxiety.
There are several factors that make animal-related grief unique.
The frequency of bereavement. We may wish to have an animal as life-long companion, but most companion animals have much shorter life spans than we do. Those who care for animals often accumulate multiple losses as the years pass. The burden of grief can be compounded because of this.
A decision to euthanize a companion animal can complicate grief and distress. Euthanasia is a common experience, but many guardians struggle with guilt, remorse, regret and a feeling of betrayal of trust, heightened by the animal’s dependence.
Society tends to marginalize or pathologize the animal companionship relationship, and consequently there is a broad tendency to trivialize the grief that results from the loss of a companion animal. This adds a tremendous additional burden to those who are struggling with animal-related grief.
This grief is disenfranchised. Animal-related grief is a grief that cannot be openly acknowledged in a socially acceptable outlet. There are few socially sanctioned rituals through which grief and mourning can be expressed, and no recognized or standard funeral services for companion animals. People who are grieving may be reluctance to tell others about the depth of their grief because they fear criticism or judgement.
The cost of veterinary care is often a barrier to treating an ill animal, and may lead to a decision to euthanize, compounded feelings of betrayal or guilt.
If you are struggling with grief after the loss of a companion animal, please remember you are not alone. Part 2 of this four-part series will focus on resources that are available for people who are experiencing animal-related grief, such as the Ontario Pet Loss Support Group at www.ontariopetloss.org.
About the Author:
Prior to becoming a full-time writer, Nadja worked as a veterinarian, most recently at the Toronto Humane Society. Her short stories have been published in numerous literary magazines, and her first novel, The Nap-Away Motel, was published in 2019. Nadja facilitates therapeutic writing workshops through CAMH (Centre for Addictions and Mental Health) for people who are struggling with grief after the loss of their companion animal. Learn more about her writing and her workshops at www.nmlhazard.com.
A Word from Nicola:
At We Wag Toronto, as Professional Dog Walkers, we have the incredible privilege of forming deep bonds with the dogs we care for. It's truly heartwarming to get to know these amazing animals and become a part of their lives. However, one of the most challenging aspects of our job is having to say goodbye when circumstances change or beloved pets pass away. It's a bittersweet moment as we reflect on the cherished moments we shared with each furry friend. We consider ourselves incredibly lucky to have been a part of their lives, and their presence will be dearly missed. For our clients who are mourning the loss of their cherished companions, we want you to know that you're not alone. If you ever feel the need to talk or share precious memories, please don't hesitate to reach out to us. We would be more than happy to lend an ear and provide support during this difficult time. Additionally, we have a collection of many photos capturing the special moments we've had with all of our furry clients, which we would be more than happy to share with you as a reminder of the joy and love they brought into our lives.