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Why we should start recognising the loss of a pet as ‘real grief’

When I take my cat to the vet, there’s a small sign at the front counter that breaks me every time.

Propped up next to a candle, it reads: “If this candle is lit, someone is saying goodbye to their beloved pet. We ask that you speak softly and with respect during this difficult time.”

We share our lives and our homes like never before but for many who experience the loss of a beloved animal, the depth of that loss is not recognised as a “real” grief.Credit:Shutterstock

It always takes me to a place I can’t begin to entertain. A world without my dear little guy, Hamish.

“He’s just a cat,” I’ve been told by people who can’t fathom how this eccentric bag of fur and bones could take centre stage in my life.

But his gentle companionship has been my anchor when I’ve been lost at sea.

On more than one occasion, he has curled up next to me as I cried, burrowing his face into my back and nudging me as if willing me to keep me going.

The bond between animal and human is often so profound that when we lose our pets, the grief can be shattering.

They share our lives and our homes like never before but for many who experience the loss of a beloved animal, the depth of that loss is not recognised as a “real” grief.

There is often the expectation to keep feelings “in perspective” or to move on and “just get another one” – as if our pets are interchangeable non-entities we can replace like an old pair of socks.

It struck me when my friend Beck recently lost her third cat in quick succession that while many people offer kind words when a pet dies, less is said about the deep sadness that for some can even morph into a depression.

“I live alone, I have mental health problems anyway so I don’t connect much with people anymore so all the love I have went straight into my cats, who are in effect, the ‘people’ I see most often,” Beck told me.

“You get to know each personality so well and they bring an energy to the house that is much needed. They bring me so much joy in their own silly ways and it hurts when they die so very much.”

Michael O’Donoghue, a vet who runs Pets and People, a national pet grief counselling service, warns that underplaying or ignoring our grief can make the loss even more emotionally challenging, particularly if the pet has played a significant role in our lives.

“Maybe your dog or your cat got you through your divorce, or maybe you saved it from the dump and you hand reared it, or just somehow this pet just really gets you and there’s this amazing bond and then bam, something happens and it’s gone. That’s when people really, really grieve.”

O’Donoghue said there is a growing demand for specialised support to help navigate the unique bereavement of a beloved animal.

“People find comfort in knowing they’ll be taken seriously because sometimes talking with their counsellor or their doctor or psychiatrist they find that they just don’t really get that profound bond with a pet or understand that there’s just this immense hole in your life,” he said.

And he added that the loneliness that can come after a pet dies is often compounded by the lack of cultural markers to acknowledge their passing.

“There’s still a huge difference in the way we grieve our pets and it can feel like you’re doing it all on your own.

“When we have a human funeral, relatives gather from all over the world and they fly in and spend a week with you and give you lots of hugs but with a pet people might just send you a nice message on Facebook. You don’t get that big ceremony or send-off that can be really healing.”

His advice for those experiencing the death of a pet is to find a way to memorialise them – whether through a photo album, planting a tree or creating a rock garden – so that your grief is channelled into action.

It is also critical to acknowledge the grief, make space to mourn openly, and seek support.

“You might need time out from work or just find space where you can be alone or with someone who’s supportive and just let those emotions go. There’s no way to instantly heal it, the best way to grieve is to really feel it.”

Jill Stark is a journalist and author of Happy Never After: Why The Happiness Fairytale Is Driving Us Mad

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