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Losing a Pet: Grief Advice from Dr. Sandy Barker at VCU

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Learn how to cope from local experts...

All grief hurts, and with pet ownership in 68% of American households, pet owners experience a lot of it. We spoke with local Richmond experts about the unique challenges of this kind of loss. Up first is Dr. Sandra Barker of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction.

Why does it hurt so much to lose a pet?
The majority of pet owners are very attached to their pets. Several of our published studies found owners were as emotionally close to their pets as to their closest family member, whether the closest family member was a spouse, sibling, or child. In my many years of providing pet loss counseling, owners frequently refer to their deceased pets as their “baby”, “child”, “everything”. Our pets share many aspects of our lives and may symbolize companionship, support, security, etc. All these may also be lost with the death of a pet.

Are there specific complications in this kind of grief?
Just as in the death of a human family member, there can be grief complications related to the death of a pet. Most owners experience some measure of guilt related to their pet’s death. Because pets are so dependent on us, owners feel they should have been able to prevent the death, seen signs of illness earlier, or worry their pet suffered. This guilt may complicate the grief process, particularly for owners who believe they caused the pet’s death. Grief may also be complicated for those whose pets are missing as opposed to known to be dead. Owners with unresolved grief related to other deaths may also experience complications.

Choosing euthanasia is an extremely difficult decision for most people and can complicate owner’s grieving process. It may be some comfort to know that “euthanasia” comes from the Greek word meaning “good death”. It is sometimes the last caring act we can provide for a pet: to end its suffering.

Coping tips on how to process and manage grief for a pet
Owners are encouraged to accept their feelings and express them in healthy ways. It is important for owners to recognize how much they provided for their pets during their pets’ lives and that they did the best they could with the information they had at the time. Reaching out to family members or friends who are supportive can be helpful as are support groups. Planning a way to commemorate the pet (e.g., planting a tree, writing a memorial, having a ceremony) can be helpful. Licensed mental health professionals are a valuable resource as well. Some employers, like our Virginia Commonwealth University Health System, include pet loss counseling in their Employee Assistance Program benefits. There are also books and online resources that may be helpful.

How can others support someone who has just lost a pet?
Just listen and be supportive. Most people tend to give advice which is not helpful. Just listen and encourage the owner to talk about how important their pet was to them and their thoughts and feelings now that the pet is gone. Advising grieving owners to get another pet is not helpful as owner’s usually view this as not understanding their grief.

Local resources for someone grieving the loss of a pet
Our Center for Human-Animal Interaction at VCU provides free telephone pet loss support for clients of participating veterinary hospitals. Participating hospitals are listed on our website at https://chai.vcu.edu/programs--services/pet-loss-support/

Wellesley Animal Hospital provides a monthly pet loss support group that is free and open to the community. For information, call Wellesley at 804-364-7030. Owners interested in individual counseling for pet loss can contact a licensed mental health professional for appointment and fee information. Clients are usually seen 1-3 times for pet loss issues.

Should I get a new pet? If so, when?
Some owners decide to get a new pet and others decide not to. It is an individual decision best made after allowing yourself to grieve for your deceased pet and deciding whether you want to form a new relationship with another pet. Some grieving owners consider immediately acquiring a new pet to replace a deceased pet which typically leads to disappointment as no pet can be replaced.

What aspects of this kind of grief might surprise others?
The grief process following the death of a beloved pet is very similar to that experienced following the death of a human family member. After all, most owners consider their pets to be family members. Some owners have informed me that the intensity of their grief was greater for their deceased pet than for a very close family member that died.

Anything else you’d like to share that might help a new griever?
Allow yourself time to grieve. Take time to remember all of the special times shared with the pet and all you did for your pet while it was alive. Such recollecting can help make sense of the intensity of your grief. Also it may be helpful to keep in mind that that grief is a normal, healing process and there is no “right way” to grieve.

Meet Our Contributor

Dr. Sandra Barker is Professor of Psychiatry at the Medical College of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). She has served as Associate Director for five inpatient psychiatry programs and Director of the VCU Center for Human-Animal Interaction, a Center she established in the School of Medicine. She has incorporated evidence of the health benefits of interacting with companion animals into her teaching of psychiatry residents and doctoral psychology interns and incorporates animal-assisted intervention into her clinical work. Dr. Barker served as an Adjunct Professor of Small Animal Clinical Sciences at Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech. Dr. Barker has been actively involved in research on human-companion animal interaction, and has published numerous articles and given talks around the world on the subject. She has received numerous awards including the 2002 Friends of Veterinary Medicine Award from the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association, the 2001 Community Achievement Award from the American Kennel Club, and the 2001 Distinguished Alumni Award from Florida State University.

LEARN MORE
Grieving the loss of a pet? You are not alone: Find support in our Pet-Loss Grief Group
They're never 'just an animal': Read grief expert Anisa Glowczak's thought on pet grief here
Find local support in our Richmond Pet Grief Resources Directory
Learn more about VCU's Center for Human-Animal Interaction