In my years as a therapist, I have seen far more people grieve worse over the loss of their pet than the loss of a human.
Why is that? If you’re not an animal person, you may not understand this. But it’s a simple explanation for those of us who are animal lovers and pet owners. What is it about our pets that would make us grieve so intensely about them when they are gone? Why are some of the same feelings of abandonment activated over the loss of a pet that are activated over the loss of a close friend or family member?
It has to do with how we personally view our pets through our own perceptual vision. For example, if your cat is nothing more than an animal you have around to catch mice (although my cat doesn’t even do that!), then the grief you may feel if that cat was lost (through death or any other means) may not be that severe. But if your cat is your confidant, you believe that you give love and receive love from your cat, and you believe you have a personal relationship with your cat, and also happen to be lucky enough to have a cat that actually catches mice, then the grief and feeling of abandonment may be extreme.
In basic terms, most people that have pets view them as family.
Therefore, the difficulty of losing a pet is similar, although contextually different than losing a human family member.
I became passionate about animals after adopting my cat Samson in 2003. That story is a whole other blog post that I will not get into now, but I’m thankful that Samson is still with me. So I don’t have firsthand experience with pet loss, but I heard a friend of mine say once,
I can’t imagine my life without a cat in it.
I can’t imagine my life without my Samson kitty in it.
I don’t even want to think about it…ever. I can only imagine what it must be like for people that have gone through it.
I remember when I was first really drawn to my work on understanding the human-animal bond. My Samson kitty had inspired me to dabble in it a bit, but it wasn’t really validated until I was in the movie theater back in 2008 watching the movie Marley & Me. This movie is based on the book, Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog by John Grogan. If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, it is a charming memoir about a dog named Marley and the role he plays in the life of the author, John Grogan and the rest of his family as their family goes through different stages in life. Marley is a handful to care for, but he was also an integral part of Grogan’s family.
I use the phrase Marley “was” an integral part of the family, so you probably can guess what happens at the end. Although I would argue that the book gives the reader a more descriptive understanding of the relationship between the dog and his human family, the movie took me on an emotional ride as well. As I sat in that movie theater and watched as Marley slowly closed his eyes and took his last breath, tears fell from my eyes and slowly streamed down my face. I didn’t have a tissue, so all I could do was wipe my face with my hands and sniff.
I was trying to control my tears because I would be completely embarrassed if I started sobbing…I could feel a sob coming on. So I kept sniffing. But then I felt comfort as I began to hear more sniffs…there were sniffs all around me, in front of me, in back of me, to the sides of me. This movie really touched people. Or was it just the movie? There was a story to connect with here…a universal experience. This story connected all animal lovers, across culture, gender, and race.
“Animal lovers are a special breed of human, generous of spirit, full of empathy, perhaps a little prone to sentimentality, and with hearts as big as a cloudless sky.” – John Grogan (from Marley & Me: Life and Love With the World’s Worst Dog)