Two weeks ago, I wrapped a friend in newspaper and put him in a rice sack to be buried forever. It was my final goodbye to my dog Achilles. Born an Aspin (short for “Asong Pinoy” or Filipino dog), the barely four-year-old Achilles contracted an acute intestinal infection that eventually took his life in a span of weeks. We tried our best. We had him confined and treated him with a mix of antibiotics, anti-inflammatory meds, and multivitamins. But the infection was severe and it eventually took his life. The grief that followed was like losing a member of my own family.
Achilles isn’t my first pet loss. Our first dog Patras stayed with us for about 15 years before old age finally claimed him. I was 19 at the time so it’s not that hard for me to feel that Patras was like a second brother whom I grew up with. From these two incidents of pet loss, I know that the grief that comes with it is no less than the grief you would feel for any close friend or family member if they end up leaving this world too soon.
Unfortunately, not everyone knows this. In fact, psychological studies like Millie Cordaro’s paper “Pet Loss and Disenfranchised Grief” have found that pet grief is one of the most “disenfranchised” experiences of grief in the world. Disenfranchised grief simply means that people do not acknowledge the value of the loss a person feels when they think that the object of that feeling is not worth it. The person who is grieving then tries to hide his feelings due to the absence of validation from those who think that those feelings are inappropriate. Because of the lack of understanding from society, pet owners in the mourning process tend to repress emotions and rationalize as ways of coping.
What we need to remember, however, is that the grief from pet loss is real because the bond between a pet and his or her owner is real. Pets help their owners psychologically by providing them with unconditional love, safety, security, support, comfort, and stability.When the pets die, that source of support dies with them. The tighter that bond is, the deeper the feeling of loss.
Clinical symptoms might also arise for the pet owner in mourning such as loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping, visual hallucinations of the dead pet, numbness, preoccupation with the death, loss of control, rumination, somatization, depression, and anxiety.
In my case, I’m very fortunate to have my friend Tanya to talk to so I have an emotional ventilation outlet keeping these symptoms from arising. She had a similar ordeal after losing her cat earlier this year.
So what should we keep in mind when we encounter people who are in distress over losing their animal friend?
One, respect and recognize their emotions. Do not belittle what they are undergoing just because it wasn’t a human who died.
Two, do not say insensitive things like, “Maybe you could get another pet.” Remember that each pet-owner relationship is unique. The memories you have with one animal cannot be transferred to another.
Finally, check if they are doing well and just be there for them during this time. We can do this by listening to them when they are ready to talk and allowing them to vent their sorrow without passing judgment on our part.
And to Achilles, I don’t know if there really is a dog heaven or if Christian teaching is right: that the souls of animals disperse into the earth after death. I personally don’t believe that. I don’t believe God would create something that a person can love only for it to really die forever. I made a random list of things I will miss most about you. They are…
> eating grass to weed the garden, like a cow.
> licking my toes, my face; any skin that was exposed.
> being able to open the door by ramming it down with your paws.
> being able to go through the grills of our gate in the garage of the house, like a cat.
> chasing me along with your brother Hector whenever I went biking in the village.
> being able to know your way home from the next village (from the church).
> always being nervous. You would pee everywhere, especially when scared.
> would always be the first one to greet me whenever I come to the house. You would jump around until I touched you.
> I carried you to the park when you were still a puppy so you could learn to get out of the house and go around the village.
> Sometimes you would walk towards me with your head bowing down, like you were anxious for me to notice you.
> You would always try to steal my “petting hand” from Hector.
> Always horny. You would hump everything, especially Hector.
> Chasing rats and cockroaches. Like a cat.
I’ll truly miss you, friend.
Some references you might find useful:
Henry, C. (2008) Risk indicators for grief symptoms after the death of a pet: Does quality of attachment make a difference? Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.
Cordaro, M. (2012) Pet Loss and Disenfranchised Grief: Implications for Mental Health Counseling Practice. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 34 (4)
Photos by Raydon L. Reyes