Life

We Need To Talk About The Pain Of Losing A Pet – And How To Process The Loss

“Lots of people grieve more intensely for a pet than perhaps they would a human."

After the death of his cat Bug, Queer Eye star Jonathan Van Ness took to Instagram to reveal he was “hurting so bad”.

“I can’t put it into words,” Van Ness wrote to his 4m followers, warning that he wouldn’t be his “typical happy self” for the next few days. “For anyone else experiencing grief and loss,” he added, “I’m with you.”

While upsetting to read, it was oddly refreshing to see someone grieving so publicly for their pet. There is no shame in openly mourning an animal – yet being told “it’s just a pet” can make it difficult to process such huge loss.

Nora Allali-Carling, a counsellor and psychotherapist who specialises in bereavement, says clients often come to her to talk about the death of a family member or friend, only for the loss to trigger deep and difficult feelings about losing a pet.

“It’s been quite traumatising for a lot of clients because they haven’t felt that it’s easy to talk about, that it’s valued,” Allali-Carling, a member of Counselling Directory, tells HuffPost UK. “You can’t always ask for time off work even if you feel you deserve to have a break or time away. Lots of people feel the shame and surprise that they’re actually grieving more intensely for a pet than perhaps they would a human.”

Dee Montague and her dog Ellie, who passed away earlier this year.
Dee Montague and her dog Ellie, who passed away earlier this year.

The charity Blue Cross has already received 5,223 calls to its pet bereavement helpline and 3,297 emails this year from people seeking support for a pet’s death. “We get anything from 600 to nearly 1,000 calls a month,” a spokesperson reveals. These figures could be a sign we’re no longer bottling up our emotions or evidence that we’re more aware of the support that’s available. Either way, calls to the helplines have almost doubled from 5,968 in 2016 to 10,925 in 2018, with emails rising from 1,936 to 4,460 in the same period.

For Dee Montague, 35, from Newport in Wales, losing her dog earlier this year dealt yet another devastating blow after the death of her brother and mother. Ellie the dog had lived with Montague, who works as a press officer, for five years when she died of old age. Originally a rescue animal, she’d lived with a foster family for nine years until her owner had to go into residential care. When she moved in with Montague she captured her heart: “Your pet is part of your family, and you will grieve them every bit, maybe more, than your human family.”

The bond we share with our pets should be celebrated, yet when they die we can feel vulnerable about opening up to others about the pain we’re in for fear of looking silly. Animals mean a lot to humans and the connections we make with our pets, who remain a constant in our lives through ups and downs, are incredibly powerful. One 62-year-old woman’s love for her dog was so strong that after her pup’s death, she was diagnosed with broken-heart syndrome.

Natalia Ashton and her pet Oscar before he died.
Natalia Ashton and her pet Oscar before he died.

We care for our pets, but they also care for us, and when we lose them – regardless of whether we’ve had them for a year or 22 years – the loss can be shattering.

Natalia Ashton had an incredibly strong bond with her dog Oscar and describes the aftermath of his death as “the most difficult time of my life”. One night he was his usual happy self, the next he was sick – vets confirmed he had haemolytic anaemia and the following morning Oscar was put to sleep. “He was brought in, didn’t even know who we were... that was it,” Ashton recalls.

After that, life seemed “pointless”, says the 42-year-old freelance writer, dog groomer and photographer from Lincolnshire. “I couldn’t sleep at night because I kept blaming myself for not saving him. And the bed felt really empty without him. Every time I drifted away I’d wake up suddenly thinking he’s there because the duvet added a bit of weight where Oscar used to push against me. And he wasn’t... and I’d start crying again.”

This intense, overwhelming sadness isn’t uncommon for pet owners. But showing emotion can be difficult for some – it’s something that David Howlett, 60, from Ontario, Canada, really struggled with. “Older men like me are often socialised to be stoic in times of loss, especially if it involves grief.” he says. “I had to learn to not be ashamed of my emotions,” he says.

Howlett’s cat Bali – named so “because she had blue eyes and was exotic like the island” – had been a part of his life for 22 years. He brought her home just before getting married, landing the grey kitty the nickname of ‘wedding cat’.

Bali the cat.
Bali the cat.

“When she died I was devastated,” says Howlett. “Think about having a four-year-old child who offers up unconditional love beneath your roof for over two decades. A child who never grows up into a moody teenager or a distant adult.”

He struggled to continue certain routines after her death. “I found myself turning down the aisle of the grocery store to buy her favourite brand of cat food. A wave of pain and loss would hit me each time I had to stop my cart and leave the aisle.”

While it might be painful, Allali-Carling advises people to stick to their routines after losing a pet. If you walked your dog daily you should still get out and go for that walk; if you used to get up early to feed your cats, continue to do that and have yourself some breakfast instead – maintaining your basic needs like eating, sleeping and exercising are crucial. “It’s important that you keep to the routine because the ritual of the routine will help you along the way,” she says, “rather than just stopping all the things you used to do with your pet.”

Over time, it does become less painful to think about a pet who had died – but the immediate aftermath can unleash all manner of emotions. Kirsty Harper, 30, lost her cat Bubba last month to lymphoma and, like Ashton, she feels guilty. “I thought his death was my fault and I still do,” she admits. “It actually made me question if I should ever have more pets in the future because the pain was so immense.

“Seeing him die, practically in my arms, destroyed a part of me.”

Kirsty Harper and Bubba the day before he died.
Kirsty Harper and Bubba the day before he died.

Harper, an international distribution manager, says while she’s been able to grieve “healthily” in the past when pets have died, this time around she still hasn’t properly cried. “I just don’t want to face the reality of him dying,” she says. “Seeing your beloved pet in so much pain, struggling to breathe, unable to move, crying for help is something I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I still can’t believe he’s gone and sometimes I forget he’s passed, as if him dying isn’t real.”

While navigating your own grief is tough, it can be even harder to try and help other members of your family at the same time. Taako the dachshund mix passed away less than a month ago, leaving Dina Zirlott, 31, and her three young children in pieces. She found the dog wandering the streets last year and when nobody came forward to claim him, he became part of their family.

Zirlott tells me it’s been hard explaining Taako’s death to her daughters aged eight, six and three, as her youngest doesn’t understand the permanence of death. “It was definitely one of the most difficult conversations I’ve ever had with them,” she says. “I couldn’t help but cry along with them – I didn’t want them to think that they were alone in their grief because they weren’t.”

Dina Zirlott's daughter and dog.
Dina Zirlott's daughter and dog.

How to break such sad news to children – especially when it’s often their first encounter with death – can be hard. Zirlott says she explained that as much as we love our pets, and want to keep them with us, sometimes we have to let them go so they can be free of suffering.

“It’s okay to be sad, or angry,” she told her daughters, “it’s okay to not be able to identify exactly what you might feel, because that’s the nature of grief.” The best thing you can do as a parent is let her children understand they aren’t alone in their feelings. Zirlott has felt uprooted by Taako’s death, too. Her husband works away from home a lot which means the evenings can be lonely.

Reflecting on when her dog was alive, she says she’d get to the end of the day and the caramel-coloured pooch would curl up next to her on the bed. “It really did feel like he was there to assuage some of that loneliness I felt,” she says. Now she’s constantly confronted by the empty space where he used to sleep.

Taako the dog, who passed away three weeks ago.
Taako the dog, who passed away three weeks ago.

Far too many people bottle up their emotions when pets die, says Allali-Carling – as with all aspects of your mental health, it’s better to voice issues that arise rather than keeping them in. “For many, it can help them to talk about the loss,” says Diane James, manager of Blue Cross’s pet bereavement support service. The charity’s email service is so popular, she notes, because writing down feelings or creating a tribute to your pet can give some closure and, for some, the chance to say goodbye.

Six in 10 people think employees should be given time off work following the death of a pet, according to a Cats Protection survey. Yet there’s no legal obligation for UK employers to provide compassionate leave for a human or pet, paid or otherwise. So it’s often down to managerial discretion – and empathy.

Allali-Carling advocates taking a day or two off following a pet’s death. Lots of her clients have taken time off work, she says, but they’ve not openly disclosed their pet’s death, just called in sick for fear of judgment. Yet a day off not only helps you gather your thoughts, but also allows you to spend some time in memory of your pet and handle any practicalities, she suggests.

That’s not to say it’s easy being honest with colleagues and bosses about what’s going on at home. Allali-Carling calls it “a grief borne in silence”.

“It’s a bit like mental health – there is that stigma that they’ll be laughed at or ridiculed, because it’s not acknowledged broadly as a loss that equates to losing a loved one – a friend or family member,” she says.

It can be hard to avoid people who make you feel judged – especially if you work with them – but where you can, Steven Cochrane, who has experienced pet bereavement himself, advises to steer clear. “To put it bluntly, it is best to avoid anyone who you deem may share this view if you are experiencing the loss of an animal,” says the CEO of the online store My Pet Needs That, who also warns against rushing to adopt or buy another animal after a death.

Cochrane recommends sharing your thoughts and feelings with people you see as sympathetic and who can relate to what you’re going through instead – if no one in your life who springs to mind, you can find people willing to talk through online pet bereavement forums or Facebook groups. “Do not feel that you must ‘bottle things up’ or fear oversharing,” he adds, echoing Allali-Carling. “Ensure those around you are aware of how you are feeling and that you are having a hard time.”

As well as talking things through, Dee Montague found solace through volunteering and is now a dog walker for Newport City Dog’s Home. “Walking dogs who have found themselves in the dogs home through no fault of their own is incredibly rewarding,” she says. “Although it’s sad at the end of our hour or so together, it’s nice to know I’ve helped them get out and have a good walk and a sniff in the fresh air.”

Dee and her loving pooch Ellie.
Dee and her loving pooch Ellie.

Allali-Carling also helps her clients process their grief by encouraging them to start a memory journal, where they draw, sketch or write down their feelings, while reflecting on the life they shared with their pet. “That really is cathartic in allowing the body to experience emotions [and] to move from pain to gratitude,” she explains. “Because once you’re journalling your pain and you’re heading towards the gratitude of actually having lived a life with a pet, that can really help to restore or recalibrate yourself.”

Natalie Trice, 45, from Devon, lost her five-year-old dog Roxy to pneumonia last year. Rosy’s ashes are now in a pot with a Japanese Acer growing in it. This is something lots of pet owners find helpful during their grief journey – honouring a pet’s legacy by planting something in their memory, or even compiling an album or scrapbook you can share with someone else, says Allali-Carling.

As for Dave Howlett, it’s been 11 months since Bali’s death and the loss can still feel “overwhelming”. But he credits his pet for leaving a legacy of empathy in his life. “When I meet a man who has lost a pet, I commiserate and I ask him to share some of his best memories,” he says. “I never try to offer a solution or a cure for his loss. I just try to listen. That’s what we all need.”