Anyone who has lost a beloved companion animal is likely aware that the death is not just like that of a family member; it is the death of a family member. Many people experience profound sorrow following the death of a dog, cat, or other animal. Animal chaplains are frequently asked such questions as, “When will this grief end?” or “Am I going crazy?” Animal chaplains attempt to provide compassionate answers.
Regarding the duration of grief, there is no timetable. Each person grieves in their own way and their own time. You will always be the person who experienced this loss, although the passage of time is likely to make the sorrow less immediate, intense, and constant. Some describe grief as coming in waves, rather than as a linear experience. Many people find that a song or picture or memory can trigger a renewed wave of grief even decades after an animal’s death.
Regarding whether the person is losing their mind, there is nothing abnormal in experiencing racking sobs, profound sadness, and intense sorrow long after the death of a companion animal.
Two factors are especially likely to complicate grief after the death of an animal companion. First, the person grieving may have found it necessary to make the decision when to euthanize the animal in order to end suffering. People often second-guess their own decisions, even though they acted in the animal’s best interests, based on their knowledge of and love for the animal. Euthanasia of a suffering animal is often the last kindness we are privileged to give them.
Second, society does not treat the death of a companion animal the same as the death of a human family member. The humans experiencing grief for an animal are not thought of as bereaved. Friends and family rarely ring the doorbell to deliver a casserole or cake in the days following the death. Few employers provide bereavement leave following the death of an animal. Sometimes a friend, family, or co-worker might even make the unfortunate, jarringly inaccurate statement, “It was just a dog [cat, horse, etc.].”
This disparity in society’s reaction has a technical name: disenfranchised grief. The grief is real, intense, and lasting, but the human is not affirmed or supported as they experience the grief. Fortunately, there are some resources available to those of us grieving the death of a companion animal. As BBUUC’s Animal Chaplain, I am available to anyone who has suffered such a loss, or even anticipating such a loss. In addition, the Unitarian Universalist Animal Ministry provides a monthly, online animal grief support group; for information about this support group, please visit https://www.animalchaplain.net.
My wish today for those who are grieving is that you experience the promise of the beatitude: Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.