Most pet owners know that our connection with animals can be as close as we get to sharing it with other people – and scientific research backs this up.
The main ingredients of human connection are seeing the other person as a reliable source of comfort, seeking them when they are suffering, feeling joy in their presence, and missing them when they are far away. Researchers have also found that these are aspects of our relationship with pets.
But there are problems. Some groups of people can have a close relationship with their pets. This includes the elderly in remote areas, people who do not trust people, and people who rely on service animals.
Researchers have also found that our attachment to our light, fluffy, and messenger companions comes at a cost because we grieve the loss of our pets. But some aspects of pet grief are unique.
For many people, the death of a pet may be the only euthanasia-related grief they experience.
Feeling guilty or doubting the decision to help a loved animal can cause grief. For example, research has found that disagreements in families about whether (or whether) it was appropriate to put a pet to bed can be very difficult.
But euthanasia also gives people an opportunity to prepare for a loved animal’s passing. There is an opportunity to say goodbye and plan last minute expressions of love and respect, such as a favorite meal, sleeping together, or a final goodbye.
There is a huge difference in people’s responses to pet euthanasia. An Israeli survey found that when pets die, 83 percent of people feel they made the right choice. They believed that they would give their friend a more dignified death that alleviated suffering.
However, a Canadian study found that 16 percent of survey participants whose pets were euthanized “felt like they were killed”. And an American survey has shown how easy the decision can be, as 41 percent of those who participated in the survey felt guilty, and 4 percent felt suicidal after agreeing to let their animal perish.
Social beliefs, culture and the strength of their relationship, romantic behavior, and personality affect people’s experiences of pet euthanasia.
Such a loss is still not acceptable in society. This is called disenfranchised grief, which refers to losses that people do not appreciate or ignore. This makes it difficult to cry, especially in public.
Psychologists Robert Neiymeyer and John Jordan have suggested that inhibited grief is the result of a failure to empathize. People deny their pet grief because some of them see it as shameful.
This isn’t just about having tight lips in the office or at the mall. People may think that the grief of pets is unacceptable to other members of their family, or to the family in general.
And on a larger scale, there may be a mismatch between the depth of animal grief and people’s expectations around the death of an animal. For example, some people may insult someone when they miss work or go on vacation to care for their pet.
Research shows that when people are grieving the death of a pet, unrepentant grief makes it difficult to find comfort, post-traumatic growth, and healing.
Unauthorized grief appears to inhibit emotional expression in a way that makes it difficult to process.
Our relationships with our pets can be as meaningful as the ones we share with each other. Losing our pets is no longer painful, and our grief reflects that. There are dimensions of pet grief that we must recognize as unique. If we can accept the death of pets as a form of funeral, we can reduce the suffering of people. We are only human, after all.
Sam Carr, Reader in Education and Psychology with the Center for Death and Society, University of Bath
This article is reprinted from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the first article.