Because Pets ARE Family!

Posted by Emily Piccirillo on

It’s high time we stop saying that we “own” dogs and cats as if they're property. They are complex, smart animals with a broad, nuanced range of thoughts and feelings, and they are worthy of our full respect, understanding and compassion. In fact, the majority of us with pets in our lives know that they are deeply loving and clever companions, that they aren’t “like” family — they ARE family. I’m delighted to share that recent research reveals that people are now beginning to admit some very important open secrets.

Surveys of Pet Parents Show:

  • More than 30% prefer their pet to their partner.
  • 40% have given their pet a birthday cake.
  • More than 40% admit to giving their beloved dog or cat far more attention on a daily basis than their partner.
  • 45% allow their fur baby to sleep in bed with them.
  • More than 50%report they enjoy the company of their animal more than their best friend.

I see you smiling! It’s true, right?

Our bonds with animal companions are often better than with other humans because our relationships with pets tend to be more consistent, reliable, tender, and authentic. These strong connections define unconditional love, joy, devotion, generosity, and trust. What we see is what we get! They open our hearts wider, add meaning, purpose and grace, and model how to be fully present. Plus, they seldom nag or snark, and are usually in a good mood! When it comes to snoring, burps and such, well, these physical expressions are inevitable and shared across our species.

The candor of these surveys delivers a refreshing truth that presents us with an opportunity to more fully appreciate all the inspiration, fun, and wisdom that exists in our bonds with pets.

Then why is it that while we intuitively know our bonds with pets are characterized by a remarkable depth of intimacy and sharing, when a pet dies, society still struggles to openly celebrate and honor the full presence of that animal in the lives of its people? This needs to change.

All Heartbreak Deserves Our Support

Unlike when a human loss occurs, there is no common cultural framework with recognized mechanisms such as obituaries and funeral services that help people share and process the death of a cherished pet with the broader community. This lack of ritual leaves pet parents and families seeking their own personal and private ways of commemorating the animals that profoundly touched their lives.

Instead, our society still tends to reflexively shrink from the difficult news and rushes to frame the loss as inevitable, and therefore less significant, event. Even if they’re said with the best intentions, comments like, “At least you can get another if you want,” or “You’ll move on,” only add insult to injury.

Society’s typical attitudes about how one “should” react when a pet dies are wholly inadequate, often misguided, and even alienating for the bereaved. This diminishing of pets’ importance tends to exacerbate, not ease, the heartbreak. The bereaved tend to feel embarrassed or “silly” about the intensity of their grief, so instead they don’t fully express — or perhaps even recognize — their true feelings.

In fact, it’s not uncommon to hear a grieving pet parent apologize when they’re suddenly overcome by the devastating loss and begin to cry. As a result, it’s natural for them to prefer social supports they’re sure will truly empathize with the emotional pain and the void left in their world.

Pet Loss Double Whammy

One of the best things about having a pet is that they tend to be very reliable friends, often even more than their human counterparts. They’re right there when we are in distress as a reliable source of solace and affection. Because of their dependability as buffers in the face of adversity, when they die, our psychological resilience can be severely compromised.

Grief due to pet loss is so under-appreciated and disenfranchised across society that it often leads to many people suffering in silence, desperately concealing the extent of their anguish and confusion. It’s quite common for this grief to be so overwhelming that it’s impossible for the bereaved to think straight, engage in daily routines, function at work, sleep, or eat. We may withdraw from the world and feel lost.

I’m a firm believer that the intense grief that comes with the loss of a pet is the direct expression of the great love in the deep, shared bond. This enduring connection deserves to be honored and celebrated, not merely acknowledged. It’s time for our culture to stop stigmatizing and trivializing these vital connections.

Furthermore, I think that both love and grief aren’t bound by the space/time continuum. So, while human lives are defined by the steady sequence of hours, days and years, it’s an illusion that we ever “get over” the loss of loved ones when they pass. This is the main reason that despite our awareness that our pets’ deaths are likely to occur before our own, this knowledge doesn’t make their passing any easier — it doesn’t diminish the love or the grief. In fact, it makes their presence all the more precious and profound.

Enduring Love & Connection with Pets

This dynamic poses a vital challenge as we navigate our flesh and blood world: If we believe that our bonds with the deceased continue to exist due to the metaphysical nature of love and grief, plus if we also accept that the living are ruled by the ticktock of clocks, it helps to engage in ways to reconcile ourselves to the loss of a beloved companion so we can continue to be present and thrive in the here and now. (If I must, this is how I would define “closure” although I don’t like that word because it implies an ending.)

Pursuit of this healthy objective would benefit from a shift in our collective ability to support each other with patience and kindness when a pet dies.

Fortunately, there is some very good news. It seems society is finally starting to trend in the right direction. More than ever before, furry companions are being openly and enthusiastically valued as family members. More support groups (many online) and memorial events are being held. We’ve formalized the roles of animal chaplains and pet end-of-life doulas with certification programs. Finally, the stigma and trivialization of intense pet loss-related grief is beginning to wane.

To facilitate this trajectory, we need to create and implement new, satisfying ways of providing support that validate the full expression of the grief that comes with pet loss. Let’s make progress together in helping each other heal through the loss of a dear pet. Utilizing a RemembeRing is a wonderful place to start!

As part of this effort, you’ll find a growing list of additional resources and detailed guidance here. And of course, we always welcome your insights and feedback here.

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