Burying Grief over Pet Loss Increases Health Risks

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After the awful day when Noreen Nettles had her dog Penny euthanized, it was as if the color left her world. Nettles says, "In my mind, Penny was my child, yet no one cared enough to ask, 'Are you okay?' or to say, 'I'm sorry.' To outsiders, pets are just animals but to the bereft person, the pet is as much of a family member as a flesh and blood person."

After the awful day when Noreen Nettles had her dog Penny euthanized, it was as if the color left her world. Nettles says, "In my mind, Penny was my child, yet no one cared enough to ask, 'Are you okay?' or to say, 'I'm sorry.' To outsiders, pets are just animals but to the bereft person, the pet is as much of a family member as a flesh and blood person." Nettles is not alone in grieving after the death of a pet and feeling worse instead of better when compassion from others isn't forthcoming. 360 million pets are in 69 million American households. 83 percent of pet lovers call themselves their pet's mommy or daddy. At the death or loss of an animal family member, millions feel devastated and alone, trying to cope with or bury their grief. This is why Allen and Linda Anderson, a husband-and-wife writing team with a series of best-selling books, wrote "Rainbows & Bridges: An Animal Companion Memorial Kit" (New World Library 2005) to help people heal after pet loss. It contains a comprehensive book about all aspects of pet-loss grief, a fill-in journal and meditation cards to facilitate remembering the life of a pet, a photo frame, and three types of memorial services that laypeople or clergy can use to hold a ceremony after the passing of a pet.

Allen Anderson says, "Allowing for what we call 'organic grieving,' helps people to recover naturally at their own pace. When people say, 'It was only a dog/cat' or 'Just get another pet,' they trivialize a person's pain. This causes many to suppress their emotions, leading to health risks associated with unacknowledged grief, such as depression, lowered immune system response, and unrelieved stress."

Most people grieve silently over the death or loss of an animal family member fearing, rightfully so, that coworkers won't understand or sympathize. They hide their feelings in public and save the tears for home. Given prevailing attitudes in today's society, the Andersons say that grieving in private is probably a good strategy. They suggest taking a personal day or bereavement time. Spending a day at home, where the grieving person can express sadness, anger, or regrets, builds strength to go back into what might feel like a hostile work environment.

Parents sometimes have a compounded problem with buried grief as they struggle to hide their sadness in front of the children. Linda Anderson says, "Often the loss of a pet is a child's first experience with death. Parents tend to focus on their children's needs, sometimes neglecting their own." In "Rainbows & Bridges," the Andersons tell parents to talk honestly and simply with children about the pet's death without using euphemisms. Saying the pet has been "put to sleep" can cause a child to fear bedtime and never waking up. The Andersons suggest that parents openly mourn the death of a pet but be careful not to overwhelm children with the burden of having to cheer up an adult. Shared grief can become a bonding experience for families.

"Rainbows & Bridges" also addresses what the Andersons identify as a disconnect between what a person believes about animals and the afterlife versus the official dogma of orthodox religions. The Andersons advise that since the belief that animals go to heaven appears to be an ancillary tenant of most theologies, people can agree to disagree on this point. In some cases, grieving people may benefit by looking for a different congregation or minister who has a viewpoint more in tune with theirs.

Linda Anderson says, "As Hurricanes Katrina and Rita demonstrated, animals are members of the family. People grieve over this loss they way they do over any other loved one's passing. Unnecessary suffering and increased health risks result from ignoring or trivializing this fact -- in life -- and in death."

RAINBOWS & BRIDGES: An Animal Companion Memorial Kit

By Allen and Linda Anderson

October 10, 2005 * Animals/Gift * 6 x 8 * $24.95 * ISBN 1-57731-503-0

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