Mental Health Experts Say it’s Time to Start Taking Pet Bereavement More Seriously

Therapists and counselors agree: it’s time to stop stigmatizing the loss of pets as compared to the loss of humans. For people who consider their pets as family members, a collective sigh of relief can be heard. Mourning is mourning, after all, and who’s to judge whose loss is more significant? Animals are far kinder and less judgmental than people, and they love us unconditionally. How could we not be negatively impacted by their deaths?

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Pet Bereavement

Michelle Crossley, an assistant professor at Rhode Island College, has been researching scientific literature on pet loss. A recent paper on human-animal relations published in the journal CABI Digital Library recently explores the roles therapists and other mental health experts could play in overcoming the social stigma of losing a pet. “For example, there are very few employers that allow for pet bereavement leave as they would a human death,” she noted.

Loss is Loss

“Grieving the loss of a pet is still trivialized in today’s society,” Crossley and co-author Colleen Rolland wrote in the paper. Rolland is a pet loss grief specialist and the president of the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement. Inverse took it upon themselves to break down the paper’s recommendations and spoke with pet owners and mental health experts to examine how to best support our mental health as we grieve these losses.

sad child
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Emotional Support

As they cannily observed, “The loss of a pet is often the first death a child will experience in their lifetime, yet it can be hard for kids to process that death without adequate emotional support.” The responses they got in their quest for answers were both thoughtful and insightful. “As a child, my experience was not fully supported. I think it’s often an impactful first loss for many of us at a tender age,” admitted Leigh Siegfried, founder of the research-based dog training company Opportunity Barks.

Experiencing Loss at Any Age

They also point out that it isn’t just children that can have a hard time processing the passing of a beloved pet. “When my last cat passed, a friend emailed me ‘he was old, you’ll get another, get over it,'” Molly DeVoss, a certified feline training and behavior specialist who runs Cat Behavior Solutions, told them. She went on to say, “It’s a tangled mess of feelings we have when we lose a pet; we are missing them, wondering if we failed them, feeling guilty about not doing more for them, and questioning if we let their suffering go on too long – or not long enough.” Anyone who’s lost a pet can absolutely relate.

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Getting Help for Loss

“Giving a voice to individuals grieving a disenfranchised loss is one way in which counselors can help clients through pet loss,” Crossley and Rolland wrote in the paper. Crossley stated that it’s vital for counselors and therapists to understand the significant role companion animals play — and the potentially traumatic nature of the loss — before they can create a treatment plan for grieving patients. The stronger the bond, the more emotionally devastating the loss.

You Are Not Alone

If you’d like to learn more about their findings and recommendations, check it out for yourself on Inverse. And remember, there is no shame in loving an animal or how you react to their passing.

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