When we lose a close relative or friend we are generally offered support and care by other loved ones, employers and society in general. But what about when we lose a pet? On a recent holiday to Anglesey in Wales I took a walk around Penrhos Coastal Park and in a beautiful woodland clearing there is a small but well-populated pet cemetery. An overwhelming majority of the gravestones referred to the interred animals as dearly loved faithful friends (or words to that effect). What struck me about this and prompted this blog was the sense of deep loss conveyed by these engravings and how it equates to the loss of a human companion in society’s eyes.
The UK has often been called a nation of animal lovers, we have a huge industry dedicated to our pets. In fact, “the retail value of the pet care market in the United Kingdom from 2013 to 2018. In 2017, the market value for pet care products reached around 5.3 billion euros. The pet market in the United Kingdom is one of the largest in Europe, with 44 percent of people claiming to own any pet in their house”. (statista.com)
So why do we, as a society, place so little importance on supporting those left behind when the animal friend passes? I confess, I’m baffled. I have recently trained with a well-known bereavement support charity and there this very question was raised; no one had an answer. So, I’m positing a few of my own here.
· Historical/cultural norms – most of our current favourites (cats/dogs/horses) were originally domesticated for work as mousers, hunters & retrievers and work-horses. There was no or little emotional attachment and when they had served their purpose they were scrapped.
· They don’t live as long as our human loved-ones. This is generally true but not always nowadays. Dogs, cats and horses are usually more pampered and have access to better medical care than in the past and so they become an integral part of the family.
· Stiff upper lip. To admit to loving an animal may be regarded as soppy, indulgent and sentimental. To admit to regarding an animal as a valued friend may be seen as a bit sad, the reserve of a lonely person, possibly rejected from or unable to integrate successfully with society.
This is only a small list of possible answers to the lack of acknowledgment of or support for the loss felt when a pet dies. And all of these can be roundly challenged. Animals work less for us since the industrial revolution; advances in veterinary medicine allow us to treat the common diseases that would once have claimed their lives; with so much more understanding of mental health and the breaking down of stigmas and taboos we can begin to open about loss in all its forms regardless of who or what we have lost.
Personally, I would love to see more counsellors and therapists include this specifically in the support and care they can provide. We are in a position to bring about greater acceptance of this form of bereavement as a genuine need for support. There is no denying the distress that can come with bereavement and the accompanying gamut of emotions to be worked through and processed. By promoting this as a genuine area of potential emotional and mental ill health we can enable society and employers to recognise when a little extra support can go a long way to helping the bereaved, regardless of who they have lost.