Oct 27 / Diana Karagienakos

Companion Animal Loss During a Pandemic

Yesterday I phoned Anna* (whom I’ve never met) to offer condolences after the passing of her dog, Sarge. She and Sarge lived together nine years. “Sarge was a perfect dog, a rescue dog. I loved him dearly.” At age 82, Anna had been alone 60 years at the time Sarge came into her life. She’d grown up in a series of foster homes, and told me that in her relationships with humans – be they parents, siblings, partners, or her own children – she’d never experienced unconditional love. Until Sarge.
I don’t usually make such one-on-one calls. But the monthly companion animal-loss support group that I facilitate has moved online due to the pandemic, and Anna is not set up with the technology to join us on Zoom. Given the isolation many of us are experiencing as we shelter in place, Anna needs to know that she is not alone in her grief. Not finding support amongst family or friends, or within one’s religious doctrine, is one of the main reasons people attend our meetings.
Loss doesn’t always mean death. Loss can occur when someone has to to rehome or relinquish their animal (for any number of reasons), they “lost” their animal in a relationship breakup, or if their animal was stolen or ran away. And not all deaths are equal. When euthanasia is involved, oftentimes issues of guilt arise: Did I do the right thing? Did I do it too soon? Did I wait too long?However loss is defined, if not properly grieved and validated it can haunt us for years. Losing a companion animal can trigger memories of past, unresolved losses, resulting in compound loss. Loss of a companion animal can also lead to complicated grief (grief that falls outside the bounds of a particular cultural tradition); and disenfranchised grief, where the mourner’s grief is not recognized by others.
Those who have experienced a deep Human-Animal Bond (HAB) know that the relationship between a human and their companion animal can be just as meaningful, valid, and valued as any human-human relationship. Many who’ve lost a companion animal say that the pain of that loss can be deeper than that experienced after the loss of a human loved one. The relationships we have with animals are pure. Unlike the humans we love, animals never test us. They don’t betray us. They never break our hearts.
Further, the void created by the loss of a companion animal, the deafening silence of their absence in the home, can be devastating. This devastation is often compounded by the fact that the human’s grief is largely unsupported in society. Most workplaces don’t offer bereavement time for animal loss. Friends and family often cannot empathize with the profound grief that is being experienced.
I know exactly how Anna feels. I too live with a rescued dog, Picard. I cannot imagine lockdown life during a pandemic were it not for him. His face is the first thing I see every morning and the last thing I see at night, so I wake up and go to sleep smiling. Picard’s constant, comforting presence can help alleviate occasional feelings of anxiety and depression. I don’t take one second of our precious time together for granted.
Throughout our call, Anna told me several stories about Sarge. I wished she could attend a meeting, so she could hear for herself that she is not alone, that so many share similar memories of, and love for, their animal. I encouraged her to be compassionate with the people in her life who cannot comprehend her love for Sarge, and not to judge them. How sad that some of them haven’t experienced the HAB? Or that perhaps they once loved an animal, but were shamed into silence by other people in their life for “overreacting” to the loss of “just a dog.”

His face is the first thing I see every morning and the last thing I see at night, so I wake up and go to sleep smiling. 

Memorializing companion animals can be a vital step in mourning their loss and healing. Anna paid tribute to Sarge by writing a poem about him. She read it to me on the phone, as she wanted to share it with “someone who understands.” I can tell by her words that Anna was blessed to share her life with Sarge. And Sarge was one lucky pup.

*Names and other identifying factors have been changed to ensure privacy protection.
If you would like to know more about Diane’s group, please click on this link:
Companion Animal Loss Support Group