We need to change the way we treat people bereaved of pets, a psychologist has warned.
The loss of a pet – a welcome and constant companion in good and bad times – is devastating to say the least, especially as most of us like our pets more than we like most people.
But the extent of the grief felt over the death of a beloved animal is still widely shunned by society, with the bereaved expected to recover in ways we’d think callous if we were talking about the death of a human.
The psychologist and author of How to Fix a Broken Heart, Guy Winch, has outlined why the loss of a pet is such a misunderstood experience for some grief-stricken pet mums and dads.
Writing in the Scientific American, Winch recalls some patients who felt too embarrassed to show peers their grief for passed pets for fear over seeming ‘overly sentimental’, ‘immature’, or even weak.
Winch recounted one psychotherapy session with a man called Doug, who told him about his mutt, Delia, after her death.
Doug had said:
I had her for 17 years. I knew it would be rough when she died, but I had no idea… I was a total wreck. I cried for days. I couldn’t get any work done.
And worst of all, I was too embarrassed about it to tell anyone. I spent days at work crying in private and muttering ‘allergies’ whenever someone glanced at my puffy eyes.
Indeed, Winch cites a report in The New England Journal of Medicine about a woman who experienced ‘broken heart syndrome’ after her dog died.
The condition is a response to grief so severe the person usually exhibits symptoms which mimic a heart attack, including elevated hormone levels elevate to 30 times greater than normal.
It is often associated with the loss of a long-term romantic partner – but clearly can apply to the bonds we build with our pets too.
So, why does society-at-large still persist with the idea grief over the loss of a pet in somehow different to the loss of a loved human?
It’s important to address because it affects how people feel able to mourn, a process vital to dealing with grief.
Winch believe the lack of ‘societal support mechanism’ on offer after the loss of a pet results in the bereaved feeling shame which further ‘complicates the process of recovery by making it more lengthy and complex than it should be’.
After all, he notes, many studies have found social support is a ‘crucial ingredient’ in recovering from grief of all kinds.
Furthermore, Winch claims, this lack of support is bound to impact our own perceptions of our emotional responses negatively is ‘likely to add an extra layer of distress’ related to shame or embarrassment in turn.
To make the process harder, caring for a pet offers us humans routine and meaning which slips away after their death.
Sometimes, a pet provides much needed company for the lonely or anxiety sufferers, for example.
Winch advises the bereaved to seek the routine and meaning – as well as company and support – elsewhere, if possible and ask for help from our human companions wherever possible.
More importantly, the rest of us must be careful not to judge or dismiss someone’s grief just because it doesn’t seem relative to us.
If you have experienced a bereavement and would like to speak with someone in confidence contact Cruse Bereavement Care via their national helpline on 0808 808 1677.
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