Mourning the loss of a pet is difficult, but social stigma can make the process even harder and leave individuals to grieve in silence.
We often don’t regard the loss of a pet on the same level as a human death, even though many owners consider their furry friends an integral part of the family.
Crossley’s latest research reviews the scientific literature on pet loss, suggesting that mental health professionals like counselors and therapists can play an essential role in breaking the social stigma around mourning a pet. The paper was published in November in the CABI journal Human-Animal Interactions.
“Grieving the loss of a pet is still trivialized in today’s society,” writes Crossley and co-author Colleen Rolland in the paper. Rolland is a pet loss grief specialist and the president of the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement.
Since millions of Americans acquired pets during the Covid-19 pandemic, many more individuals will soon mourn the loss of their pets. Inverse broke down the paper’s recommendations and spoke with pet owners and mental health experts to unpack how to support our mental health as we grieve our pets.
Why it’s hard to mourn a pet
The loss of a pet is often the first death a child will experience in their lifetime, yet it can be hard for kids to process that death without adequate emotional support.
“As a child, my experience was not fully supported. I think it's often an impactful first loss for many of us at a tender age,” Leigh Siegfried, founder of the research-based dog training company Opportunity Barks, tells Inverse.
But even adults can find themselves adrift at sea without the empathetic ear of friends or family to support their loss.
“When my last cat passed, a friend emailed me ‘he was old, you’ll get another, get over it,” Molly DeVoss, a certified feline training and behavior specialist who runs Cat Behavior Solutions, tells Inverse.
Losing a pet and lacking support for such grief can lead to depression, anger, and other mental health concerns, Crossley says. There are also aspects of grieving that are unique due to owners being responsible for a pet’s well-being, and individuals often grapple with feelings of guilt along with missing their pet.
“It’s a tangled mess of feelings we have when we lose a pet; we are missing them, wondering if we failed them, feeling guilty about not doing more for them, and questioning if we let their suffering go on too long – or not long enough,” DeVoss says.
“Crossley adds, “Similar to human grief, there is a great deal of guilt in pet grief.”
It can be even harder for owners to mourn pets if they aren’t cats or dogs — the most common pets in the U.S. Crossley, who recently lost a guinea pig, explains that “it is easier to accept that the loss of a dog or cat is more openly accepted and validated as deserving of grief.”
Absent support from broader society, adults will often turn to fellow pet owners for comfort during their mourning, Siegfried says. DeVoss also expressed a desire for greater emotional support from veterinarians around end-of-life pet care, though Crossley says that some veterinary schools are incorporating mental health and pet loss into their curriculum.
Crossley’s review paper specifically suggests we pay greater attention to the role of mental health professionals, who could help pet owners process their grief.
How can therapists help?
“Giving a voice to individuals grieving a disenfranchised loss is one way in which counselors can help clients through pet loss,” Crossley and Rolland write in the paper.
Crossley explains that it is crucial for counselors and therapists to understand the important role of companion animals — and the potentially traumatic nature of the loss —before creating treatment plans for grieving clients. The stronger the attachment bond between owner and pet, the more devastating the loss will be for the owner.
The review explains there are pet loss models in the academic literature which are similar to the Kübler-Ross model, which breaks down human grief into five stages (though not all humans will experience all these stages or in this order).
Therapists can use such pet loss models to help clients process their emotions. Psychiatrist David M. Reiss tells Inverse the Kübler-Ross model is also likely a good outline for pet grief, though there may be some difference in processing mourning for a largely non-verbal pet-human relationship
The Blue Cross for Pets Grief Cycle follows the Kübler-Ross model but also adds in factors like anticipatory grief — individuals may express shock and anger as they approach the loss of their pet — self-blame when owners feel responsible for not doing more to care for their companion animal. Nowadays, these models focus on resolving grief associated with a pet’s death — and recognizing the significance of that pet-human relationship — rather than finding closure.
People can find support for pet loss grief in online pet loss chatrooms or bereavement support groups, often organized in veterinary hospitals. But the review also suggests some ways therapists can help clients process their grief in their sessions, such as therapeutic storytelling or play therapy, in which clients paint or draw figures to express anxieties and fears around the loss of their pet.
But not all therapists may be prepared to help a client deal with pet loss, which the review paper highlights.
“Very few academic training programs require courses that focus specifically on grief counseling,” Crossley says, adding, “I do believe that there are specific nuances to working with pet loss.”
Reiss says it could be especially difficult for therapists who have not experienced strong bonds with pets, which could lead to minimizing the client’s loss in an unhelpful way.
“Depending on cultural background, a therapist might not appreciate that the loss is significant "enough' to trigger a ‘true’ grief morning,” Reiss adds.
Other resources for grieving pet loss
The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement offers a chat room and a regular online pet loss grief support group. DeVoss also recommends the SPCA of Texas’ pet grief helpline (214-461-5131). Blue Cross for Pets in the UK also has a phone, email, and webchat pet bereavement support option.