The star of popular television show Gardeners World has died. No not Monty Don, but his faithful co-host, Nigel the Golden Retriever. This sad news came as a surprise as he had been seemingly well in recent weeks. His death has provoked what Monty describes as an overwhelmingly supportive response to his loss and is acknowledgement perhaps of the importance of pet bereavement.
The bond or attachment we have with our animal companions causes painful emotions when broken. The grief we feel when we lose a pet can be as soul-destroying as losing any family member, yet often friends and family do not understand the significance of the loss. This ‘disenfranchised grief’ makes the process more difficult as people feel they should carry on as normal and not acknowledge their feelings as they would if it was a human bereavement they were experiencing.
Grief is a hugely individual and personal process, and nobody grieves in the same way as someone else. Some people may recover relatively quickly, and others may take years to be able to look at a photo of their lost dog without bursting into tears. Grief is a natural process and a valuable, healing one that aids recovery, despite feeling awful at the time. The problem with pet bereavement is that some people feel as though they may be viewed as silly for being upset and comments such as ‘it was just a dog’ or ‘get another one to make you feel better’ are unhelpful and can hinder emotional healing.
You may have heard of the five stages of grief linked to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and for some people this is a useful way to view their grief process. For others, it may lead to feelings that they are not moving forward, or that they are stuck in one phase, so should be read in the knowledge that everyone is different.
These are the emotional stages that the bereaved may experience, but there are physical, cognitive and social aspects to grief too.
The physical aspects can include:
- Physical sickness
- Lack of Concentration
Cognitive aspects (which means the functioning of the brain that allows us to think, reason and understand):
- self blame
- blame directed to others for the death
- doubt as to the timing of the death – especially if the decision was taken to Euthanise a pet a need to understand and learn all the details of the reason for the death, or in some cases how death actually happened
- Self isolation -Wanting to hide away from friends, family and take time off work
- incessant talking about the deceased pet and the pets demise
- the need and urgency to want to replace a pet
- For those who have had to come to the most difficult decision regarding euthanasia, feelings of guilt can be overwhelming. Thoughts such as ‘should I have tried harder’, ‘did I make the decision too soon’, ‘perhaps I should have tried a different vet’, or ‘I feel like I have abandoned him’, can cause deep feelings of despair.
I believe the important thing to remember is at a time like this, people should concentrate on their own needs. Go back to basics; make sure you eat, sleep, get some exercise, talk to friends and family about how you feel and get support. Some people find creating a memorial helpful and there are many ways in which this can be done. It is important to allow bereaved people to feel sad; to acknowledge the loss and how devastating it can feel. Those who have lost pets, should be aware that painful emotions may resurface again, even when you think you have gained closure.
Do Animals Grieve?
Yes, of course they do! Anyone who has lost one of two bonded animals will know this. Many animals have mourning rituals they will carry out when a member of their family dies. For Nigel’s canine companion Nelly, his death will be tangible. She will know that he is no longer in her world and may well pine.
When asked how to make animal grief easier I remember the concepts around death. In simple terms animals that grieve are aware that the dead animal is no longer functioning and that this is irreversible. Therefore, it is useful to allow the remaining animal to see their companion after death, so they understand what has happened. You may see the dog sniffing, touching or nudging their companion. Even if animals do not grasp the inevitability of their own death, they do understand the death of others.
The best way in which Monty can help Nellie at this time is to keep positive and upbeat with her, despite their shared grief. Routine is hugely important to dogs, so this should be maintained.
Dogs may experience anxiety when a person or pet they spent a lot of time with no longer comes through the door at the same time each day, or isn’t there to share in the excitement of a game or a going for a walk. It’s ok to comfort your dog if they come to you for a cuddle.
Praise your dog for calm behaviour and ignore the behaviour that it’s best not to encourage. If you notice the surviving dog waiting for her companion, try to encourage her to play a game with you instead. Pheromone plug-ins or collars may help a stressed dog to relax as will taking time to improve the bond with the surviving dog.
Loss affects us all greatly whether we are human or non-human animal. We all recover better when we care for each other.
Sleep well Nigel.