In Memoriam

June 14th, 2011

If you’ve had pets for any length of time, then you’ve probably experienced the death of a pet at least once. Which means you’ve probably also experienced this: you’re telling a non-pet-owning friend or relative about the grief of losing a beloved animal, when you chance to look in their eyes … and realize that they haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about. They want to be kind and sympathetic, really they do. But they just can’t understand why any reasonable person would be upset about the death of a dog or a cat. It’s just an animal.

All right, yes: some pet owners do go overboard. But we feel what we feel. And if it’s OK to mourn the death of a character on Grey’s Anatomy or get teary-eyed while watching the royal wedding on TV (are you related to any of those people?), then surely there’s room for those of us who grieve when a pet passes from our lives.

According to this article from The London Free Press, there’s a growing appreciation that the emotion associated with the death of a pet needs to be acknowledged as a genuine form of grief — as evidenced by, for example, the rise of workshops on the subject of pet loss. And there are some sound sociological reasons for this shift in attitude:

The trend merits more than just passing notice or a roll of the eyeballs. Decades ago, our longing for companionship was met by children, parents or friends who were weekly, if not daily, in our lives. We shared communities, if not parcels of the same tract of land. Today, hundreds of kilometres often separate parents, friends and children. In urban and suburban environments, neighbours are acquaintances, but seldom regular kitchen-table visitors. And the human need for love, loyalty and companionship seeks new avenues.

Lorelei Eckel-Braun, manager of Kitchener Cemeteries … says the impetus for creating a workshop on pet loss came from a combination of factors, including the more significant place pets occupy in the average home and “the tremendous amount of suffering that people go through” with the death of a pet. She recruited Dianne Bauer, a funeral director who had done research on pet loss, to conduct Monday’s session.

Those who attended, Bauer said, “wanted practical advice on how they might express their feelings” …

“As a society, we tend to diminish pet loss,” Bauer said. People will experience comments like, ‘It’s only a pet; for goodness sake, go out and get another one.’ Unfortunately, I’ve heard people say the same about loss of a baby. In both cases it’s dreadful; it shows terrible insensitivity, but it happens all the time.” Those responses, Bauer says, further inhibit expressions of heartfelt emotion.

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