It is estimated that 68% of Americans have welcomed at least one pet into their home, a significant increase from previous years and evidence of a significant shift in the way we view the role of pets in our lives. Once reserved for the purpose of farm work, hunting or protecting the farm or home from an infestation of rodents, today a large majority of Americans view their pets as part of the family, forming close connections and relationships with them similar to those that we establish with the people in our lives.
The pet industry in the United States was estimated at $69.51 billion dollars in 2017, and continually growing!
For many, their family pet is their first friend. Whether it was the family dog or their first hamster, we develop a close bond sharing secrets throughout our lives, sharing our accomplishments and turning to our pets for that judgment-free ear when we need to share our heartbreak. There is little in the world as comforting as a dog that snuggles up to you with unconditional love after your first breakup.
One downside, however, to this shift in pet ownership is the heartbreak that is felt following the loss of your dear friend. Whether you are a young child, experiencing death for the first time as your parents try to explain why Fido is gone, or as an adult trying to make the difficult decision on whether it is time to end your pet’s suffering and make the humane decision, there are no words that can fully describe the pain that the loss of a pet can bring.
In fact, many experts report that the loss of a pet is the most difficult experience that we will face over the course of our lives. Dani McVety, CEO of Lap of Love, a veterinary hospice network, stated, “After the passing of a pet ninety-nine percent of people say to me in some shape or form, this was harder for me than the loss of my mom, or my grandma.” In fact, research even exists showing that for many people, the loss of a pet is, in nearly every way, comparable to the loss of a human being.
The question that many find themselves stuck on is why.
For those that have never owned a pet, the idea of being that close to anything that isn’t human can be difficult to wrap your mind around. After all, most pet owners didn’t believe they could have this close of a connection before bringing their pet home either. Despite the inability to verbally communicate with one another, there is a deep emotional connection that forms. They become part of our daily routine, a staple in our lives.
Following the loss of a pet, our whole routine is turned upside down. Everything from meal times to our bedtime routines have been built to accommodate our pet’s needs. Suddenly our pet is gone, and we are left with that vacancy in our daily schedule, a constant reminder of what is now missing in our life. All their lives, our pets were ALWAYS there. You wouldn’t come home to find out they were out with friends and the house was quiet, or that they were taking a week-long vacation – instead, your pet was home waiting eagerly for your return. Now, you walk through that door to an unfamiliar silence.
Combine this sense of loss with the fact that our society has no set plan for dealing with the emotions and feelings surrounding the loss of a pet. When a human passes away, we plan a funeral, attend visitations, and the people around us reach out to assist with the grieving process. Work will give us time off to deal with our feelings, friends, and family come around the home bringing hot meals and offering their assistance in any way necessary. In most cases, this is absent following the loss of a pet. Instead, we are expected to simply continue with our regular routine as if nothing happened, trying to keep our emotions ‘in check’ to avoid being seen as overly dramatic. Without the same opportunities for closure, we are simply left to manage our own feelings and emotions.
If you, or someone you love, has experienced the loss of a pet, try to be patient. Be patient with yourself as you go through the grieving process – this is a loss, and grief is normal! If it is a loved one, reach out to them. Express your sympathy and give them the opportunity to talk about it. Let them know that it’s okay to feel the way that they do and offer your support. Be part of the healing process, it’s what they need most at this time.