Why does the death of a pet matter to us so much?

We were unprepared for the level of grief that struck us after Milo died

Milo was born in September 2005, so he died just short of his 12th birthday

Milo was born in September 2005, so he died just short of his 12th birthday

 

Our Bichon Frise dog Milo died on June 6th. My wife and I were very much taken aback by the level of grief that Milo’s passing precipitated. Such grief is common among pet owners when their pet dies. I have looked into the psychology that underpins this phenomenon and found a very helpful article published on May 17th, 2016, by Julie Axelrod on PsychCentral, an independent mental health social network – https://psychcentral.com/lib/grieving-the-loss -of-a-pet/.

Milo was born in September 2005, so he died just short of his 12th birthday. Dogs don’t live nearly as long as humans and you can calculate equivalent human age by multiplying the dog’s age by six. Milo was therefore about 70 years old in human equivalent terms. He was very healthy throughout his life but developed a kidney tumour and went down quickly at the end. Little could be done medically and we nursed him at home in our living room. He seemed to be in no pain. We talked to him a lot and he responded, even as he grew very weak. Two days before he died he went into a deep sleep and didn’t awaken. Our vet, Dr Pat O’Doherty of Gilabbey Veterinary Hospital, helped Milo in his last days, advising us at every step of the way, which was a big comfort.

We bought Milo as a pup in 2005, shortly before the second of our two boys left to join his brother in the UK, where they have both lived since. Our household for most of the last 12 years therefore consisted of my wife, myself and Milo. We were unprepared for the grief that struck us in Milo’s last days and when he died. I think it would be helpful for all dog owners to realise from the start that they are almost certainly going to outlive their dog and that when the dog dies they will experience significant grief.

What causes us to grieve so intensely when our dog dies? Julie Axlerod explains that we are actually mourning several losses simultaneously, and I can personally endorse each one. Firstly, we mourn the loss of the unconditional love given to us by the dog. Dogs accept us totally; a feat rarely achieved by a human companion.

Secondly, we mourn the loss of a protégé. We feel responsible for another life and go to great trouble to ensure our dog’s physical and emotional wellbeing. This requires many activities, eg walking the dog, ensuring he/she meets other dogs, playing with the dog, etc. Consequently, losing a dog can feel like losing a family member.

Thirdly, we mourn the loss of a “life witness”. We act with uninhibited emotions in front of our dogs and they accompany us through the years observing both our weaknesses and our strengths. During hard times they provide us with comfort and stability.

Fourthly, we mourn many relationships and routines. When the dog dies there are no more feeding times, daily walks, throw and fetch games, etc. No more “Good boy Milo, mind the house” when going out, no more letting him out to piddle before bed time, no more combing out his hair, no more reflexive talking to him as we go about our other business, and so on.

Fifthly, we mourn the loss of a close companion. For some people the dog may be the only social companion in the world, exclusively relied on for support and love.

Axelrod cautions against forcing yourself to get over your grief quickly, pointing out that your emotional processing has no set end point and putting pressure on yourself only makes you feel worse. Talk to other pet owners who recently experienced a loss. It also helps to rehearse the story of your dog’s life – when did you get him/her, what was his personality, special memories, what will you miss most, etc. This crystallises the things that are important to remember.

Dispose of your dog’s possessions gradually but keep some special things. Perform a ritual – we buried Milo in our garden together with his two favourite toys and marked his grave with a little plaque. Allow yourself to grieve naturally. Be patient. The sad feelings will subside and you will be left with happy memories.

Goodbye Milo, we will remember you always.

William Reville is an emeritus professor of Biochemistry at UCC.

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