Losing a pet can be very distressing and the grieving process can be lengthy. However, people often laugh at this loss: “It’s just a dog …” Why is there such a taboo about such grief?
December 21, 2015 is engraved in my memory. That day I lost my beloved dog Bingo. He was only three years old and had epilepsy. His medication is no longer helping much. In the week before his death, he had severe seizures and was seriously ill. The vet saw no other way out than euthanasia.
I asked him not to die, even though I was fifteen years old enough to realize he wouldn’t understand me. I’m still trying. Bingo was special to me. He had a small white spot on his chest and beautiful brown eyes. As soon as I said the words “Let’s go…”, he knew we were going for a walk. He was also obsessed with the ball. He barked and barked until we threw that ball across the yard and he could run after him and get it back to us. This game can go on for hours – to the point of boredom. Although I would love to do it again.
Your dog also determines your daily routine in a large way. You walk with her, feed her every day, and take care of her. It’s also always ready when you come home in the evening. All this falls when he dies
Six years later, I’m still having a hard time losing bingo. However, I don’t talk about it much, for fear of reactions like “it was just a dog”. It’s still a taboo to admit how sad I felt after Bingo’s death. Even after the death of a family member. I find it very embarrassing to admit that many years later I still sometimes cry when I think of him.
Nienke Endenburg, a health psychologist and associate professor of human-animal relations at Utrecht University, agrees that “there is a taboo surrounding the loss of a pet because people are already ashamed of their grief.” She guides people who have lost a pet in the grieving process. The idea is that it is “just” one animal and that you should go and get a new pet from the shelter. But eight out of ten owners see their pet as a full member of the family. Pets are not a refrigerator that you can just replace.
According to grief expert Manu Kers, in general there is a taboo about grief and grief in society. People no longer learn how to deal with it. They tend to push their grief away. There should not be. They should have outgrown it after a few weeks. In the past, more time was spent in mourning. For some people, their pet is their best companion. Their connection to it is very important, and the animal means a lot in their lives.
The grieving process depends largely on that bond with the deceased animal, but also on the understanding shown by others and on the stressors. This is evidenced by research conducted by Gerald Goss (Nassau Community College, NY) and Michael Barnes (Hofstra University, NY), who surveyed more than two hundred people who had recently lost their pets.
When your animal dies by euthanasia, you decide on life and death. This is very difficult, and many people doubt whether it can be done later. Or it should have been sooner.”
Edinburgh also investigated the loss of a pet. On average, the grieving process takes 8.5 months. But there were big differences. Some get past it after a couple of days, others it takes years. Edinburgh looked at what makes the difference now. This appears to be mainly the connection to the animal, and the way it died. If euthanasia is not done well, it can lead to massive trauma. Sometimes animals are not sedated during euthanasia, Endenburg says. Sometimes the anesthetic injection hurts, or the animal becomes disoriented and quits while under anesthesia.
“I don’t see a time frame for mourning,” Keres adds. “It takes a long time. In fact, it depends in part on the meaning that the pet has in that person’s life. The dog also determines your daily structure to a great extent. You walk with it, you feed it every day, you take care of it. It is. He’s also always ready when you come home in the evening. All this falls when he dies.
Euthanasia Bingo went smoothly, but it went too fast for me. One day he was still wandering around the house, and the next day he was suddenly gone. He was still young, which is why I cannot accept his death well.
Edinburgh: Your dog must be twelve years old. Don’t expect at all that there won’t be after three years. This is very unfair. Then you wonder why all those other dogs live until you’re twelve and your dogs don’t.
Sometimes I wonder if there is no alternative. Wasn’t there a new drug for epilepsy in dogs anywhere? Or would that have happened if we had waited a little longer? I often feel guilty, and according to Endenburg, I’m not the only one. “I noticed that many owners suffer from feelings of guilt after euthanasia. It is also difficult to pinpoint that moment. Because then you decide death and life. This is irreversible. Died is dead. Many people doubt whether it can be done after a week, Or whether it should be done earlier.
These feelings of guilt and sadness return every year. Throughout December, I think about bingo more than other months. “A year after the animal died, I usually see mourning pop up in my clients,” Endenburg says. ‘Or in the previous weeks, when your seizures were worse. It can help to walk the date of death where your dog would love to be, or do something with a photo.
The importance of rituals
According to Manu Keirse, a ritual, such as a memorial service, can help with the loss of a pet. Through rituals, a personal and private experience is poured into a social form. In this way, what you feel and experience becomes visible in the community. Because society is also thinking about it at that moment, it helps.
There are not many funerals for dogs or cats, but there are funeral homes for animals. There are also animal crematoriums, where you can cremate your animal and take home an urn or necklace containing the ashes. Belgium currently has fifteen animal cemeteries and crematoriums.
Rituals can also be very helpful in the loss of a pet. But unfortunately that doesn’t happen very often.”
We buried bingo in the garden, but this is not always allowed. For example, the animal may not have died from an infectious disease or the soil may not be clay or loam.
We didn’t create rituals like funerals for nothing, of course. “They have a very important job,” Endenburg says. She says goodbye, there is a lot of support from family and friends. This support is important. Rituals can also be very helpful in the loss of a pet. Sending a card or lighting a candle can mean a lot. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen often.
Some people need grief counseling after losing a pet, such as those visiting Edinburgh. According to Manu Kers, this is not always necessary. Feeling sad after a loss is normal. Stop this sadness. A memorial photo or brochure can help. And talk about it with people who take it seriously and who you know you can tell.
In April 2022, my parents and I welcomed our new dog, Bono. We haven’t had a dog in six years, for fear of experiencing such a heavy loss again. But suddenly Bono came on our way and brought a lot of joy to the house. Although I must admit I wasn’t convinced by its charm at first. He kept barking at us when we carried him. Then all of a sudden it became very difficult for me. I don’t want another dog. I wanted bingo. But when Bono was asleep in my arms that night, I was sold.
We’ve waited six years. Some people bring a new pet home a few days or weeks after their previous pet has died. According to Manu Kers, it kind of negates the sadness you feel. “So the dog seems to be replaceable, which it isn’t.”
“Everyone has to decide for themselves when to get a new pet,” says Nienke Endenburg. “Some people do it very quickly and some people wait for years. Some never want a new pet because they don’t want to experience that grief again. A lot of times they say it right after euthanasia, only to get a new pet after a while. It’s true. But I also see people who do not want to start the grieving process and then quickly buy the same type of animal as the deceased animal. Until then, it turns out that this animal is completely different and cannot meet expectations. Endenburg stresses that you have to realize that it takes time and energy to get to know an animal New and communicate with him.
When people get a new dog, they often feel guilty about their previous dog. As if they didn’t think about it anymore, you wouldn’t mind if they replaced it. But each animal has its own character and when you are ready, you should definitely get a new pet. As long as you understand that it will not replace your previous pet.
It’s clear to me that Bono will never be able to replace bingo. Bono has his own personality. It is black in color, but has brown feet and two small brown spots above its eyes. He doesn’t play with ball like bingo, he prefers to bite the branches (which we are trying to get rid of…) and chase flies. Running around the yard like crazy when he sees me again after I’ve been away for a while. He loves to hug and lie in my arms. I know he will die one day too. I know it would hurt a lot. But all I can do is enjoy time with him as much as possible and hope he’s a full member of our family for as long as possible.