If you've ever experienced the loss of a pet, you know that the pain and grief is deep and real -- and can even be overwhelming.
Despite that, grief over the loss of a pet is often not treated with the same respect or sensitivity as grief over the loss of a human. People who have lost a pet may feel like their emotions are being dismissed by their friends, coworkers and even family members, said Carol Baldwin, a certified thanatologist and member of the American Association of Death Education and Counseling.
"When we’re grieving for a pet, we’re made to feel silly for grieving for so long or for grieving so passionately," Baldwin, who is also director of the Center for World Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at Arizona State University, explained to The Huffington Post.
In fact, grief over a pet can sometimes feel even worse than grief over a human, added Dr. Claire Sharp, an assistant professor in the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. "The grief that people feel for their pets is identical -- and in some cases, stronger -- than losing an adult family member because our pets are so helpless that we feel so responsible for them," Sharp tells HuffPost. "To me, it's more akin to losing a child than losing an adult family member because they're very helpless, and we feel very responsible for them."
Sharp oversees Tufts’ Pet Loss Support Hotline, which is manned by trained student volunteers, in addition to Sharp and a certified counselor. She says that common emotions expressed by people calling in include anger, guilt and loneliness -- the same emotions that would be felt in grief over a human. Anger or guilt are commonly felt earlier on in the process, and may be experienced, for instance, over decisions to euthanize a pet or if the owner feels bad for not picking up on signs of an animal's sickness sooner.
Feelings of sadness and loneliness may set in later on in the process, once the realization has set in that a constant companion -- a pet that was with them every day, and might have been there even when their family members were not -- is no longer around. "There are a lot of situations where somebody calls and they had just lost a pet that had been with them for 15 years, and that pet helped them through with a lot of difficult times in their life, like the loss of spouse or child," Sharp says. "[Maybe it was] a child’s pet and the child had died and they inherit the pet, and so when the pet dies, it's like losing not just the pet, but the child all over again."
Sometimes, people who have never been a pet owner before may say things that are dismissive of the grief, which just makes the grieving person feel worse. Baldwin and Sharp shared some of the more common phrases -- and why they can come off as hurtful:
"It was just a dog."
People who make comments like this probably aren't able to comprehend how the pet was more than just a pet -- it was also a companion, Baldwin says.
"Why don't you just get another one?"
While a person who says this probably means well, it can come off as insensitive. "When a husband dies, [we wouldn't say], 'Go out and find another one,'" Baldwin says. In fact, she recommends people who have lost a pet to allow themselves time to grieve before going out and getting a new pet, because if you're not emotionally ready for a new pet, it can be unfair to the new animal. "When that new pet is not behaving like the pet that died ... there's this realization that 'I can't get my dog back,' or 'I can't get my cat back,' and 'I made a big mistake,'" Baldwin explains.
However, Sharp says that there is a way to talk about another, future pet that could be helpful to the person grieving -- by mentioning that a new pet can never replace the one who died, but that the grieving person is a wonderful pet owner who can give another animal a wonderful home. In essence, it can allow the grieving person to feel like he or she has permission to think about the next pet. "People sometimes feel guilty even thinking about it, like they're betraying their old pet," Sharp explains.
"Wow, you really want to spend $1,500 on a burial site for a dog?"
On top of feelings of grief, people who have lost a pet may also feel like people are judging them based on what they choose to do with regard to the passed pet. And comments like this don't help. "They start feeling guilty, like maybe they shouldn't" be spending that much money or go to such great lengths for their pet, Baldwin says.
"How are you still not over it by now?"
Grief is individual. Feelings -- and their duration -- differ from person to person. For that reason, it's insensitive to make comments like this that imply that something is wrong with a person because he or she still feels sad about the passing of a pet, Baldwin says. In fact, people may continue to feel sad about a pet's passing years after the pet has died, particularly on the anniversary of the pet's death, or on the pet's birthday.
"Well, we knew that dogs don't live as long as people do." or "You knew he was really sick and this was going to happen."
Sure, people know these things in their minds. But "being reminded of those things when you're in the throes of horrible grief, that doesn't help," Sharp says. "When you're in the early stages of very severe grief, having someone remind you that this day was going to come -- you would never say that to a person" if he or she was grieving over a human death. Instead, say things like "he's in a better place now," or "you did the right thing by putting him to sleep because he was suffering," Sharp suggests. That way, you're helping the grieving person recognize that the pet was ill, but you're allowing them to be justified in their actions and emotions.
"Do you really need a counselor to get over a pet?"
There is nothing wrong with needing to seek professional help due to grief over a pet. In fact, it's "actually quite normal if you're experiencing grief that you're finding it hard to move on from," Sharp says. "[Just] like if you were to lose a family member, grief from pet loss can continue longer than you might want it to."
If you are coping with the loss of a pet, visit the Pet Loss section of the Association for Death Education and Counseling for resources. You can also talk to someone at Tufts’ Pet Loss Support Hotline by calling 508-839-7966.