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Why losing a beloved pet hurts so much, and how to deal with the grief

© Anadolu Agency / Getty

By Lindsay Dodgson, INSIDER

  • Losing a pet is one of the hardest things an owner will ever go through.
  • Our furry friends are considered part of the family because they see us through some of the toughest times in our lives.
  • Psychologist Perpetua Neo told Insider that a pet's death can feel like such a loss because the relationship we have with them is so pure and unconditional.
  • Society isn't great at talking about death either, so we might not be comfortable with the idea of saying goodbye.
  • It's really important you give yourself permission to grieve your pet as trying to suppress it or pretending it doesn't exist will only make the pain come back twice as hard.

A pet is more than just a pet - they're part of the family. That's why it hurts so much when we have to say goodbye to them.

Losing a pet is likely to bring up a lot of the same feelings as losing a family member or friend. It comes in waves and we go through the same stages of denial, anger, guilt, depression, then finally acceptance.

The intense emotions felt when a pet dies can be incredibly painful, which may be hard for people who have never owned animals to comprehend.

"While some people may not understand the depth of feeling you had for your pet, you should never feel guilty or ashamed about grieving for an animal friend," the RSPCA website says.

Moving on without our furry companions is a massive adjustment, especially if they've been in our lives a long time. For those of us who grew up with an animal, it may feel like they've been around forever. So they leave behind a massive hole when they're no longer here.

Psychologist Perpetua Neo told Insider that a pet's death can feel like such a loss because the relationship we have with them is so pure.

"I think at the heart of it all, a pet has a lot of love to give that is not calculated," she said. "I know people say things like 'cats can be very calculated and cold,' but actually all animals have a lot of love to give without the calculation and reciprocity humans do."

In other words, a pet's love is unconditional, and it doesn't come with many of the games and complications human relationships do.

"Compared to a human being, you never know if this person is being genuine or not, so we can easily be fooled," Neo said. "While it's hard for us to be genuinely fooled by a pet."


Pets see us through the tough times

Pets also see us through some of the toughest days in our lives. Cats, for example, may seem nonchalant a lot of the time. But if you're sad, there's a good chance they'll come over and sit with you, cat-people will often say.

© Raymond Hall / Getty

There's some scientific evidence to support this. One study by Moriah Galvan and Jennifer Vonk at Oakland University in 2015, for example, found that cats may be able to sense our moods.

"Sometimes the biggest gift you can give someone who is sad is the gift of your presence," Neo said. "Saying 'I'm here for you and it sucks.' And a pet with an inability to talk and an inability to judge you is just like, 'I'm present, I'm here purring, that's all."

Dogs, meanwhile, are incredibly loyal and forgiving, and may also be tuned in to how we feel. A study from 2018, led by Kun Guo at the University of Lincoln's School of Psychology, found that they can pick up on different emotional noises in human voices.

Another study from 2018 suggested the bond between humans and dogs is so strong because they communicate with us through different gestures. So not only do we lose a pet, we lose a friend.


We're not that well equipped when it comes to death

Another reason the loss of a pet can hit so hard is that we're not always prepared to deal with death. As Neo said, it's not something often discussed at the dinner table.

Pets often die before we've had a chance to really deal with the fact our loved ones won't be around forever, so it can be a wake-up call to mortality. The worst thing to do when faced with a pet dying, Neo said, is to try and ignore the uncomfortable feelings.

"When death happens we tell ourselves to snap out of it and just forget it," she said. "We put these rational thoughts, what I call cognitive photoshop, all over it and tell ourselves everything is ok, everything's going to be fine, and the person is in a better place."

But death isn't about the person or the animal who isn't around anymore, she said, it's about you and the others who are left behind.

"So as a society we need to process or be open to talking about deaths, whether that's of other human beings, our family members, or our cat," she said.


Don't try and hide from the grief

It's really important we give yourself permission to grieve your pet too, as trying to suppress it or pretending it doesn't exist will only make the pain come back twice as hard. You should also forgive yourself if you couldn't be around them all the time, because of growing up, moving out, or just not having the time, Neo said.

"One of the really important things to know is you did your best," she said. "With what life presented you with, you did your best."

If you don't live with your childhood pet anymore, you should let your family know you want to be kept in the loop with what is going on with them. Then, when the time finally comes, you'll know you can be around. It's a hard conversation, but at least that way you know you'll have the chance to say goodbye.

And when you're ready, you'll be able to one day celebrate your pet's life and everything you went through together.

"I think when you feel all this, you are having this time to reflect on the journey your pet went on as a pet," Neo said. "It's not a fun reflection session, but it is one of the best ways you can give your pet the honor it really deserves."

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