Eileen Mitchell, Special to The Chronicle
Last year, when cancer claimed the life of Little Lady, the downy mink-colored cat that Lynn Ferren found in a cemetery 11 years ago, Ferren was surprised at the depth of her grief.
'I've lost pets before, but never has it hurt this much,' said the San Ramon resident. Indeed, the death of a beloved pet is a socked-in-the-stomach sensation that every guardian eventually experiences. And sometimes, like Ferren, the intensity of our pain catches us off guard. This was, after all, 'just an animal.'
But according to certified thanatologist and grief counselor Bonnie Goodman, these feelings are perfectly normal. Thanatology is the study of death, including grief, attitudes and rituals. Goodman specializes in the growing field of pet bereavement.
'People who can't relate to this subject are usually those who don't have pets,' she said from her Palo Alto office. 'This makes the grief more intense for people who are mourning their loss. They can feel like they're going crazy, but they're not. Counseling normalizes their grief and tells them they're not alone.' Society doesn't give much credibility to or place much value on grieving for pets. 'Animals are ... a disenfranchised loss,' she said.
Moira Anderson Allen, author of 'Coping With Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet,' agrees. 'If you've never built a relationship with a pet, then you won't miss it when it's gone. But when that pet becomes an intimate part of your life, you lose a piece of yourself when it dies.'
Allen, a former editor of Dog Fancy magazine, was inspired to write her book after the magazine ran a survey article on pet loss. 'We were flooded with responses that said, 'I'm probably the only person who feels this way ...' I wanted to let people know that no, you are not the only person who feels this way.'
Indeed, researchers have come to acknowledge the critical role animals play as companions. More than 63 percent of U.S. households own some type of pet, equal to 69.1 million homes. Once relegated to the garage or backyard, pets today are often considered beloved family members, and their death may trigger an equally intense response. A death can also stimulate unresolved issues regarding a previous loss.
'Sometimes a person may not have dealt with a human loss in their life, and their grief is expressed through the death of their pet,' Goodman said. 'They might have allowed themselves to have a deeper relationship with that animal because there was so much pain in losing that human.'
How people respond to their pet's death also depends on the depth of their relationship with the animal. We don't always form the same type of bond with every animal we have. Whether it was a cat that provided emotional support during a nasty divorce or a devoted rescued dog that was resurrected after a life of abuse, certain pets are more etched into our hearts than others.
Researchers characterize three types of human-animal bonds that affect how people grieve.
The most common relationship applies to people who love their pets and consider them family members but don't give them equal status. This is, after all, just a dog. Only a cat. These people experience grief but tend to recover faster and are inclined to replace their departed pet more quickly. They almost never seek out emotional support because their grief is simply not that intense.
People who regard their pets as significant family members might exceed their financial means should the animal get sick. 'Whatever it takes' is a common refrain. Not surprisingly, these people experience a longer grieving process and greater sense of loss. This animal was an intimate part of their lives and their death is keenly felt. These people often won't get another pet for a while, needing time to grieve. They might take time off from work and seek out support to help manage their grief.
There are also people who lavish the most extravagant care and attention on a pet, consider it a surrogate child or spouse, and often prefer the company of the pet to that of other humans. They also tend to anthropomorphize their pets (attributing human characteristics to them). Their loss is devastating, and grieving can last a very long time. These people are the most likely to seek support from a grief counselor.
How a person loses a pet also affects the way in which he or she grieves. For example, an old cat's peaceful passing in his sleep might be easier to absorb than a young cat's violent demise in the jaws of a coyote.
'Anticipating a death through illness helps the guardian to prepare,' Goodman said. 'But when an animal is killed in an accident, it's a terrible shock, and feelings of denial, anger and depression may surface. There wasn't a chance to say goodbye. Another difficult pet loss is when an animal runs away. This is tremendously painful for people because they never know what happened. There's no resolution, no closure. The guardian is always left wondering what happened to their pet.'
Euthanasia raises another host of complications unique to pet grievers. 'People wonder if they did the right thing or if maybe they should have waited a bit longer,' Goodman added. 'They feel guilt and question if it was the humane thing to do, even with the support of their vet.'
Someone's religious and cultural beliefs, personality, background and state of mind at the time of the pet's death also influence the intensity and expression of grief. Goodman noted that she gets more calls from women than men.
'Our society says it's more acceptable for women to show emotions than men, especially around grief and loss,' she said. 'Women can cry and mourn deeply, but men may feel more of a stigma and not allow themselves to grieve in the same way.' She recommended that 'all people give themselves permission to memorialize their deceased pet in some way.' She suggested making a memory book, lighting candles or reading something during a service as examples. 'Most importantly, process your feelings through talking to someone. The more people acknowledge the death, the more it helps them move through their loss, and healing can begin.'
Joining a support group also helps. 'People are comforted by sharing with others who feel the same way,' said Roy Gesley, a volunteer facilitator of pet loss groups in Oakland and Berkeley. 'Grieving is a process that has to run its own course.'
Gesley, who serves as a grief counselor for Kaiser Hospice by day, says these groups provide consolation by normalizing grief and acknowledging and validating feelings. 'Your grief at losing a pet can be every bit as deep as losing a two-legged member of your family. At these meetings, you begin to understand that you won't stop feeling sad about your loss, but you will learn how to hold it, grow around it and live with it.'
Perhaps Allen summed it up best: 'The loss of a pet is the loss of a relationship. It is the loss of something you love. If you truly love something, then losing that loved one is going to cause pain.' But it is the joy of loving that helps animal lovers recover and embrace new pets. Because that priceless dividend of unconditional love makes the risk of loss a risk worth taking.