Why we grieve so deeply after losing a beloved pet

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Maryglenn Warnock, Guest columnist
Published 4:21 p.m. CT Sept. 11, 2020

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The University of Tennessee Veterinary Medical Center offers a free support group for people grieving the loss of a pet.

Knoxville News Sentinel

On National Pet Memorial Day, remember that there’s no right or wrong way to grieve and that intense feelings are normal.

Story Highlights

  • Maryglenn Warnock is founder of Paws to Remember, a Nashville-based pet aftercare company. She is a native of Southern Kentucky, a longtime Nashvillian and a graduate of Vanderbilt University.

Sunday, Sept. 13, marks National Pet Memorial Day. In observance of the occasion, it seems appropriate to reflect on the special bond we have with our animal companions and explore an often misunderstood topic: grief over the loss of a pet.

In my work as a pet bereavement counselor, I’ve heard countless grieving owners express concern that their intense feelings over the loss of a pet aren’t appropriate. Some have even wondered if they’ve lost their minds or if their feelings are abnormal or unjustified.

If I could share one thing with anyone who is grieving the loss of a pet, it is this: There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Grief is intensely personal. You may feel overwhelmed, sad, angry, despondent, numb, guilt-ridden, even relieved. It’s all normal.

And it’s all OK.

I think many owners are simply shocked by how intensely they feel the loss of a pet. Maybe on some level, we believe we should somehow mourn the loss of our human companions more, or that we should be more accepting of the loss of a pet. That we should understand that pets have shorter lives than humans. That we shouldn’t hurt so much. That we should be able to bounce back more quickly. Quite simply, none of those things is accurate.

Losing a pet is terrible, and here are just a few of the many reasons why:

Pets stake their claims to the real estate in our hearts

Pets find a way of claiming a huge chunk of real estate within our hearts. Pets can be goofy, completely un-self-conscious, playful, adorable, shameless and irresistible. What’s not to love?

Love is love. And when one loves deeply, one grieves deeply.

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Pets are an important part of our lives and our routines

Our pets are an important part of our everyday routines. Naturally, when we lose a pet, it is a huge disruption to every part of our lives. The disruption can cause incredible stress in our lives. Nothing is the same.

Pets bring us joy

Pets bring so much joy into our lives by being constant, excited to see us, and loving us unconditionally – and it’s so hard to be without that joy. It’s only natural that we would feel despondent when that is gone.

Pets bring us such comfort

How is it that pets know how to do the right thing at the right time? Pets comfort us when we’re sad and somehow know how to make even our worst days more bearable. Naturally, losing that source of comfort could leave us despondent.

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Several years ago, when I was in the midst of losing my father, my beloved Old English Sheepdog, Major, was such a comfort to me – always available to absorb my sadness, to calm my fears and just be there.

Our bond with our pets is strong and intense

Many people consider their relationships with pets closer than those with human family members. Our selves are often tied up in our pets. When we lose a pet and lose the bond that we cherish, it is natural to feel overwhelmed with grief and sadness. Loss is hard, regardless of whether it is the loss of a human companion, the loss of a job or the loss of a pet.

For children, the loss of a pet may have the same impact as losing a family member. (Photo: Getty Images)

Pets provide us with important physical contact

One of the most meaningful aspects of owning a pet is the physical contact a pet affords us. Pets typically love affection, and as humans with a need for physical touch, this is a mutually beneficial relationship. Naturally, losing a pet and losing the ability to hold, cuddle and touch the pet creates a huge loss for us on many levels.

Our relationship with pets is largely uncomplicated

Relationships with humans may leave us with mixed or conflicting feelings, but our relationships with our pets are typically pretty straightforward. We love them without question, we don’t hold grudges (nor do they) and when we lose them, the pain is excruciating.

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