Psychologist Stephanie LaFarge, Ph.D., fields 2,000 or more calls every year for the ASPCA Pet Loss Hotline and says 75 percent of callers confide with some embarrassment: You know, I didnt grieve this hard when my father [or other close relative] died.
They think it means they are a bad person who likes animals better than people, but its a fact that people experience the loss of a pet with great intensity, Dr. LaFarge says. Its not pathological. Its the norm. It feels odd because we didnt expect it to hit so hard.
Science doesnt know why, but Dr. LaFarge speculates one reason is the role the animal plays. Were around our pets for more hours of the day than most human relationships afford, and for sheer comfort, companion animals live up to their companion roles. One study found when happily married women returned home after a bad day, they often turn to their cat rather than their husband.
Pets have gone, as they say, from the backyard to the bedroom, Dr. LaFarge says, and theyre omnipresent in a way that makes their absence feel all the more dramatic and the house more empty.
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author E.O. Wilson, professor emeritus at Harvard known for his work in sociobiology, has theorized that a separate structure in the brain may account for our deep attachment to animals. To my knowledge, no scientist has tried to test this possibility. In reality we dont know why many pet owners feel the loss of their pet with such intensity, Dr. LaFarge says.
Death can be particularly hard when a pet represents life transitions in an owners life, as can happen when a young mother loses a pet who had been with her when she changed from free spirit to parent, she says. And sometimes women dont feel they have permission to grieve since theyre so busy with their children.
Dr. LaFarge has found that men and women grieve on different timelines. Often women peak first since they have provided most of the caregiving for a dying pet. Men may have a delayed reaction several months later.
In the end, the best advice is to let yourself grieve. Some people find solace in remembering a beloved pet with a ceremony, donation or memorial. A proliferation of pet loss support groups helps pet owners in their time of need. Check with your cats veterinarian, a veterinary school, your local shelter and humane organization. Youre not alone in feeling your loss.