Losing your pet can be very hard on you. Pet loss is something that is often times not taken very seriously by others when it should be. The pet loss grief of which people go through can be devastating. It is also a very common event to happen. Everyday pet owners lose their pets for various reasons and it often feels like losing a family member.
The grief can actually be higher than when losing a fellow human. Pets are a part of our lives daily and when they are gone, it can feel like something is missing in life. Read more below about how a pet’s death can hurt more than a humans death to some.
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A pet’s death can hurt more than losing a fellow human
The perfect coffin for a gerbil is a Celestial Seasonings tea box. With the tea bags removed, the white wax-paper bag inside is the ideal size funeral shroud for a tiny body. This unfortunate factoid, like much of the information about how to dispose of a beloved pet’s body, comes from personal experience. I buried four gerbils in my backyard as a child, complete with incense on their graves and a few words.
As an adult with a puppy well on his way to being over 60 pounds, I hadn’t given much consideration to how I’d deal with other pet deaths until a friend asked me, “this is a terrible question, but what do you do when he dies?”
I dug into the question, and as I did I found that I wasn’t alone in wondering—but that there isn’t a great answer.
The experts I talked to emphasized that our relationship to pet loss has changed over the last century. “It’s not surprising to me that we feel such grief over the loss of a pet, because in this country at least they are increasingly considered family members,” says Leslie Irvine, a sociologist at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Sixty-eight percent of Americans own a pet, an increase of twelve percent since surveys of pet ownership started in the 1988, when it was already booming.
Losing a beloved animal friend is made harder by the relative novelty of the experience, often being a person’s first experience with a close death, and by it being one of the few times most people chose euthanasia to end a life. And depending on the relationship, the loss of a pet can be more traumatic than the grief we feel after the death of family and friends. In part, this is because pets share some of our most intimate relationships—we see them every day, they depend on us, we adjust our lives around their needs—and yet publically grieving their loss is not socially acceptable.
We haven’t always felt this way, though. As a society, Irvine says, we’ve moved from thinking of pets as accessories or mindless pieces of furniture to thinking, feeling beings.
Pets become family members because they actively shape how we live. “A lot of people who have pets wake up at a certain time, not because of any alarm clock or any need of their own but because their dog needs a walk,” says Irvine. “Just as other humans participate in becoming family by doing these practices—getting up together, eating together, navigating the bathroom times, and all that—so do animals become part of the rituals that make family.”
And it isn’t just a daily ritual that makes pets familial. We form attachments to animals in the same way that we form attachments to people, says Cori Bussolari, a psychologist at the University of San Francisco. She points to a study in Science from 2015 that found when people gazed into a dog’s eyes, both the person and the doghad increased levels of oxytocin. Oxytocin, sometimes called the love hormone, regulates social interactions. It’s released when humans stare into each other’s eyes, and when parents look at their newborn children. “I’m sure if you did the study with other animals it would be the same,” Bussolari says.
I already imagine losing my puppy will be harder than burying my gerbils, but I also didn’t stare into my gerbils’ eyes quite as much. No matter the species, our bonds with our pets are unlike our other relationships. For one, Bussolari says, they’re entirely dependent on us. For another, Irvine says, “we idealize animals, especially dogs. We create them as these almost angelic characters, so we have this idea of unconditional love for us.” When they die, she explains, it almost seems like a violation of this mythos we’ve built around them.
Read more on Popular Science
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You may want to try this especially if you have more than one pet that are close to each other. We had 2 dogs and 3 cats, and they were all close to one another. When our dog and then when our cat died, to help with the loss and for the other animals I laid the body out for the other animals to see. I left it out for a day and each of the cats and the dog came by and sniffed and could see that their friend was dead.
I believe it really helped them realize that their friend was no longer around to play with. It also gave us a chance to adjust and say goodbye.