I will never be able to erase the image of my husband carrying our dog Juno down the stairs of our house, her 60-pound black fur body completely limp in his arms, nor the memory of the heaving sounds she made as her breath left her body minutes later. She died in April 2022, and I am still grieving deeply, but in a way that feels solitary and misunderstood. Perhaps that’s because we live in a world that fails to recognize the true significance of pet loss.
As pet owners, we seem to be hardest on ourselves for not being able to “get over it.” We have internalized a culture that doesn’t recognize that pet bereavement is not unlike grieving another human. Suggestions such as, “Why don’t you just get another one?” imply that a pet can simply be replaced, as one might a child’s lost stuffie.
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That’s not to say that everyone minimizes pet loss. After Juno died, many friends and family members were extremely kind and sympathetic. But I found that it was the fellow pet owners for whom the news seemed to evoke the biggest gestures: the bouquets of flowers, the comments about “being gutted,” the dog poems and cards delivered to my door.
“It doesn’t matter if the animal that died was a budgie or a horse or a gerbil, or whether he or she lived in your home with you or not,” says Debbie Stoewen, a veterinarian and social worker in Ayr, Ont. “If you experience love, then the loss of that love will produce grief.”
The love we feel for a pet is a form of love that people can’t always fill. My own dogs had the power to comfort me with an unconditional love that I don’t always feel and to lift me out of periods of depression with their simple, contagious joy. Two years after my previous dog, Jack, died, my husband — who is not a dog lover — finally suggested we go look for a new dog, because he could see that my mood wasn’t changing.
Certainly, grieving an animal’s death is not new. In ancient Egypt, for instance, hippos, crocodiles, dogs and cats were sometimes buried in pet cemeteries near the burial grounds of their affluent owners. A 2020 study of British pet gravestones analyzed how epitaphs have evolved from describing pets as our “friends” to recognizing them as “members of the family.”
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There are myriad ways people commemorate their pet’s death — funerals, memorials, ceremonies. But would you tell your boss that you need a week’s paid bereavement leave after your cat or dog dies?
After both Juno’s and Jack’s deaths, I had memorials to help work through the grief. At the memorial for Juno, who was a rescue, my daughter Antonia said, “You took a dog that had a hard go at life and made her your daughter and your friend.”
I hope that, like Antonia, others too will recognize that when a pet dies, we lose a family member: someone we loved deeply is gone forever.
Diana Ballon is writer and editor in Toronto.
This story originally appeared in Broadview’s July/August 2023 issue with the title “A Member of the Family.”
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