Healthy Hurt

He was a three-month-old puppy from the animal shelter, and I named him Reginald. Reggie—a tiny, furry orange mutt—became my best friend. We snuggled, we played, we had adventures together. But one chilly October Sunday, Reggie got sick. Lethargic, shivering, and breathing shallowly, his eyes clouded up and his paws went cold. After noticing the unmistakable signs of anemia, I wrapped Reggie in a white towel and sped to the 24/7 animal hospital. He was taken to the back room, hooked to a saline drip, and placed in an incubator. I sat in the waiting room, sobbing and shaking, until the vet came out and gave me the news: Reggie would not live long, and he was suffering. She injected an overdose of pain meds into his tiny IV. I held Reggie in my arms and watched the life drain out of his eyes. 

I’m not the only one with such a tale of woe; tear-jerking stories of pet loss abound. Dog-lovers everywhere have read Marley & Me and The Art of Racing in the Rain. For those of us who have lost our own best buddy, the pain is real. It’s not to be taken lightly or to be scorned; on the contrary, pet-loss grief is healthy.

“Experiencing powerful feelings of distress and grief over the loss of a loved animal companion is usually normal and healthy, and has long-term benefits for the mourner,” says Dr. Larry Kaufman, a leading professional pet-loss counselor and psychotherapist who’s been practicing for over 30 years. He urges those who have lost a pet—as well as those expecting to lose a pet—not to ignore their emotions. “People have strong feelings over this kind of loss because they are capable of intimate attachments and deep emotional bonding. This is something to be proud of, not something to put down.”

Society often regards the loss of a pet as less important than the loss of a human, even going so far as to say that mourning the loss of a pet trivializes the importance of human life. “The loss of a beloved animal companion can be as emotionally significant, or more significant, than the loss of a human friend or relative,” Kaufman says. “People are capable of simultaneously loving and caring about both animals and humans. One doesn’t have to detract from the other.”

Even science backs up our emotions: in a 2002 study conducted by Society & Animals Journal, researchers found that, “Humans appear to have an emotional bond or attachment to their companion animals that is not unlike what they experience with their family and friends. People often perceive their companion animals as friends or as part of the family.” This is just one of many studies that have found similar results.

And losing a pet for a “non-death” reason can be just as upsetting as losing a pet to death. “Ambiguous loss—when you don’t know what has happened to a pet (as when a dog runs away and cannot be found)—can be extremely distressing,” Kaufman says. “Also, the sudden death of a pet and anticipated death can be equally upsetting and traumatic. Preparation times can even make the mourning process more problematic and complicated.”

Above all, remember that it is healthy and beneficial—physically, intellectually and spiritually—to address your feelings.

“Those who do not work through their feelings and reactions surrounding mourning are likely to later experience a variety symptoms,” Kaufman explains. “This is a particular challenge for many animal guardians who partially identify with current societal attitudes and thus tend to minimize and trivialize their own bereavement reactions. It’s very hard to learn new and healthier ways of feeling, thinking, and behaving. But you can gain many benefits by implementing your increased psychological knowledge about pet loss.”

If you’ve lost a pet, or anticipate losing a pet, speak with your veterinarian; he or she can likely point you to a pet loss group or therapist. Don’t be ashamed to seek help, and don’t hide from your emotions. Loss, like love, is real.