Pet Reactions After Loss

Pet Reactions after Loss

Adapted from Rocky Roads: The Journeys of Families Through Suicide Grief by Michelle Linn-Gust, Ph.D.

A change in the family sometimes leads to the more intimate inclusion of a pet as a family member. Since Hurricane Katrina, when people refused to evacuate their homes because their pets were not allowed to go to the shelters (and the people had nowhere else to go), there has been more acknowledgment that pets are members of families and should be allowed to evacuate with a family rather than be left behind.

When a death occurs in a family, the pet is acutely aware of what has happened. I still can remember arriving at my parents’ house after my sister died. The house was filled with people, mostly family, and there was Chaos, the family German Shepherd, in the midst of it all. My older sister Karen remembers that Chaos ran out to greet me when I drove up. What I remember was Chaos looking confused in the midst of all of us crying and laughing (probably at the same time). And in the days to come, Chaos would look for Denise each day at the time when she was supposed to be getting home from school.

Although we do not truly know what a pet gets from a family because they cannot speak to us, we do know that they can be affected by the death of a loved one. For some pets, the person who died was the caretaker, perhaps the person who fed and walked the dog or slept with the cat. When that person is gone, the pet will sense the absence. People have reported that their dogs go looking for the deceased loved ones.

Pets will be confused about what is ensuing in the family house. They will not understand why people are upset, why they are coming and going. Nor will they understand why people might be stopping by. But in this time, they can serve as supports for family members. They will be missing the loved one who died (especially if that person was the caretaker of the pet), but they will be there for the surviving family members. Just like children, they want their routine to resume. For dogs, they look to their pack for leadership.

For some people, the pet will be the last connection to a family member. Obviously, this makes the pet very important in the bereaved person’s life. There are families who might take in the pet of a loved one who had nowhere else to go because that person lived alone. In those families, the pet will be a connection to the loved one.

If a person does end his or her life, a pet may be thrust upon a family member who is not prepared. While it's understandble that it is difficult when a dog or a cat (or multiples of each) is at the doorstep looking for a new home, a hasty decision should not be made if the family is not comfortable taking the animal in. A pet needs as much love and care as possible because the pet has lost its home and may be living with people it does not know. The pet will return that love and care.

While there is no data to support this statement, anecdotally suicide attempters and clinicians say that pets sometimes are the reasons that people do not end their lives. Pets provide something in their lives that maybe they do not believe they get from humans and may give them something to take care of, a reason to get up each morning and face the day.

When the pet who survives the dead person comes to the end of its life (as they do not live as long as most humans), it can seem like a repetition of the loss of the loved one. But remember that the animal we take in under these circumstances provides the family with more years of love. It is important that after loss we remember not to shut anyone or anything out despite our pain for the person we have lost. 

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Oct 25, 2011
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