Recently, a friend of mine had to put down his dog, Gus. This was a big deal for him. He’s single, middle-aged, and childless. He had taken care of Gus for seventeen years, raised him from a puppy, and he was the most important thing in the world to my friend. When any relationship this long comes to an end, there is real grieving that needs to happen. Those of you non-pet people might not understand the big deal, but try to see it from my friend’s perspective: This dog was the one thing that offered him consistent and unconditional love. Maybe you think that’s sad, but trust me, it’s even sadder for my friend now that his one wellspring of affection has dried up. And those of you who have had any sort of pet that you loved, be it a dog, cat, hamster or goldfish, can relate to this story.
I’ve received calls from this guy every night for the last week. He is a mess. He says he can’t focus at work and when he gets home it’s even worse. Gus was his partner for longer than most marriages last today and certainly for longer than most people stay in their jobs today. Seeing his pain and thinking about how real his connection was and how viscerally he is feeling the loss has made me think about the way we support employees going through grief.
It is one thing to talk about paid leave when a family member passes away—no one with a soul would deny the validity of these policies. But some people seem to balk at the suggestion that these policies should be extended to those who lose pets. I don’t intend to draw any sort of literal comparison between the loss of a human family member and the loss of a pet, other than to say that we feel sad when things we love die. Indeed, the unique aspect of dealing with a pet’s death is that the strength of our emotional response can surprise and discomfit us. Me? I am a cat person, and my cat is even older than Gus was, never mind what that is dog and cat years! I can promise you now that when my cat dies, I will be crying a river’s worth of tears. Then, I will hide away for as long as I can because I will be too embarrassed to tell anyone that I am so upset my frigging cat died. And that’s the point! A strange aspect of grieving for pets is how silly we can feel about that grieving process.
None of this is helped by the questionable responses of bosses and HR departments in certain companies. My friend, for example, has had a terrible time at work and received no support from his boss or colleagues. He might be having a uniquely difficult time, but in my experience, companies don’t support their employees nearly enough in these situations. Now, there are some companies—Mars, Inc. of candy bar fame, is probably the most famous—that offer special bereavement leave for pets, although none in our industry. Did you really even have to ask that question of the furniture industry? There has been some debate about the fairness of this pet-bereavement policy because those employees who aren’t “pet-people” would not be eligible for this extra benefit. This claim of inequity is absurd on its face and those companies that offer time off to mourn pets seem to agree. I am hopeful that this trend continues and that some companies in our industry—and in all industries—consider enshrining it in their leave policies. The simple fact is that going into work the day after putting down a pet is usually not worth it—for the employer or the company. Why not offer one or two days paid? Manufacturers all love to show off their Fortune ranking as proof that they are great places to work; anyone want to take on the Gus dilemma? With that said, I wouldn’t hold my breath while waiting for this policy to spread. In fact, leave policies have been going in the opposite direction of late, as companies are packaging sick-days and vacation-days into a single “paid time off” pool. The unique nefariousness of this movement is a topic for another column, but suffice it to say my friend could get a replacement for Gus tomorrow and when she dies he likely still wouldn’t have paid leave to mourn her. Speaking of getting another Gus, I know most people don’t want to hear it, but replacement pets can really help. If you still want to have a dog, the best thing to do is get another dog. I don’t mean to turn into a shrink here, but the best things about pets is that we feel like we have something that depends on us and loves us because we take care of them. Getting another pet fills that void.
In the meantime, I’ve told my friend to find the “pet people” at work to talk to. I don’t just mean people who have pets, either. In every office there are at least two people who are absolutely crazy about pets. These people want to see all the stupid pictures you take of your pet; they want to hear all the stories about the mischief your pet made; they may even get your pet a birthday present. If you lose your pet and you find your colleagues to be less supportive than you had hoped, find the pet-crazed person to talk to about this stuff, and avoid the topic around others. Some people will understand, others will think you’re crazy. Those who think you’re crazy have chunks of dirty ice where their hearts should be, but steering clear of the subject around these people makes it simpler for everyone—yourself included.
Please “like” this are or comment; and share it. Stephen Viscusi is the CEO of The Viscusi Group, a global executive search practice specializing in the interior furnishings industry located in New York City. Viscusi is the author of the HarperCollins book “Bulletproof Your Job”. You can visit his website at www.viscusigroup.com or follow him on twitter at @Stephenviscusi, Instagram at Stephenviscusi and Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StephenViscusiPage/?ref=aymt_homepage_panel . Write him at Stephen@Viscusigroup.com