Approximately 61% of households in Australia own pets, giving us one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the world. Despite this, grief around pet loss continues to be minimised and misunderstood in Australia.
The need for pet loss support is greater than ever as people have become more intensely bonded with their pets. In a short span of time pets have gone from the backyard to the bedroom. Families are spread out across the world and fewer people are having children – the bonds we form with our pets have become much stronger than they were with previous generations of pet owners.
When a person’s grief over the death of their pet isn’t acknowledged, it can be exacerbated into long-lasting suffering.
Take the story of Vicky Nonas:
Vicky had just lost the dog who had been by her side for nearly two decades and her grief felt bottomless. She had been crying for weeks but when she told people why she was so distraught they “looked at me like I had two heads”.
Vicky had been just 15 when Boofey, a blue heeler kelpie cross, came into her life. He was even born in front of her – an accident that came about after the neighbour’s dog slipped through the backyard fence.
The pair “essentially grew up together” and he was right by her side for most of her life. He was there when she lost both of her brothers. He was there when she was facing homelessness. He was even there on her wedding day.
So when the day eventually came, after 18 long years, that Boofey was suddenly no longer there, she was left floundering in a well of grief that felt infinite.
“My world literally fell apart, I knew to some extent that his loss would have an effect on me. But … there was a real underestimation of what his loss would do to me,” said Vicky.
She had gone looking for help and found a counsellor who had shown empathy for her grief initially, but as time went on and she was still grieving Boofey’s loss, the counsellor told her she had been “too attached to the dog.” It made her feel even worse.
Even the people closest to her who should have understood what Boofey meant to her had dismissed Vicky’s grief as insignificant and trivial, or they had been perplexed by the time it was taking her to “get over” Boofey’s death.
“There was no acknowledgement or validation for me having lost him. I felt very isolated and … completely abnormal. [I thought] I was going crazy,” Vicky recalled.
No one seemed to understand that if it wasn’t for that “just a dog”, Vicky wasn’t sure if she herself would “still be going”.
It’s a hard read, isn’t it? Unfortunately, Vicky’s experience is all too common for many Australians going through the grieving process for a pet.
The fact is, having the grief of pet loss acknowledged as valid and real plays a huge and crucial part in a person’s recovery and healing process.
Losing a pet is not the same thing as when a human dies. There’s no funeral, you’re not surrounded by family and friends there to support you and celebrate your pet’s life. These “normal healing rituals” just don’t follow the death of a pet the way they do for a human and this often complicates the grief process.
The grief is further exacerbated by the person who’s bereaved not openly expressing it – which is often a result of other people around that person not being able to “get it”.
The quiet suffering experienced by many people going through the loss of an animal has come to be recognised as ‘disenfranchised grief’ by many psychologists and counsellors.
A person bereaved by the loss of a pet often feels the weight of social attitudes which discourage pet owners from openly grieving because their loss is not seen as legitimate. This stigmatisation can thereby complicate and even exacerbate a person’s grief and suffering.
Social support and empathy are vital for the resolution of grief and without it, grief can be exacerbated.
This was very much Vicky’s experience after the death of Boofey. Nearly two years after her dog’s death, she was still crying most days and feeling “crazy.” But she refused to accept what those around her were saying. Boofey had been a crucial presence in her life who was there for her for 18 long years, unlike a lot of people. Her pain for him was real.
“It was literally a good year and a half before I could lift my head and focus on anything else. I functioned, but I wouldn’t say I functioned very well,” explained Vicky.
“I was a bit ashamed of what I was feeling, it was the most intense pain I’d ever felt in my life and it was prolonged largely because my pain was denied, or minimised.”
Today, Vicky is a registered counsellor and supports those who call into our Pets and People support line. While she believes things have progressed since Boofey’s death, the vast majority of callers are relieved to have finally found someone who acknowledges their loss as deeply painful.
It is hard to really pick which clients are really suffering and which are not. Send them all a People & Pets’ sympathy card, where they will find details on the back of our pet loss support 24/7 hotline which can put them in touch with a qualified counsellor like Vicky Nonas.