- Pets are increasingly such close family members because we spend every day, sometimes all day, with them and, especially in their later years, we are the caregivers and providers. And they are frequently our alarm clocks, as well.
- Much of the time, it’s the first experience we have with a close death; even children who grow up with pets will likely see them pass before they go off to college.
- Grieving for a family member or friend is socially acceptable, and people generally don’t tell us to “just get over it” or offer to find a new substitute like they do with pets.
- Euthanasia is usually the end-of-life choice for older pets, and that’s also something outside the “normal” human experience, because that just isn’t done with humans.
There’s also the ‘love hormone’ known as oxytocin, which is released when humans stare into each other’s eyes, or when parents look at their children. A 2015 study found that dogs and humans both experience increased oxytocin levels when they look into each others eyes.
“I’m sure if you did the study with other animals it would be the same,” says Cori Bussolari, a psychologist at the University of San Francisco, reasoned.
The social stigma
Wendy Packman, a psychologist at Palo Alto University, refers to the social stigma around grieving a pet as “disenfranchised grief.”
“With disenfranchised grief is there is less support, and the grief can be even worse than for a person because there are no rituals, and when people do go out and do a ritual, when they feel brave enough, they can be ostracized.”
Steve Culver cries with his dog Otis as he talks about what he said was the, ‘most terrifying event in his life,’ when Hurricane Harvey blew in and destroyed most of his home (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
How can you help?
Be a listening friend or family member, acknowledge their grief, and don’t try to minimize it or dismiss it as trivial.
Packman sums it up: “The reality is that the more we talk about grief, the more we normalize grief.”