The psychology of grieving for your pet

(BPT) – As any pet lover will readily admit, the greatest attribute that pets have is unconditional love for their owners. Perhaps that is why it is so difficult when we must say goodbye to our pets.

Well-meaning friends and family may question the seriousness of grief that some experience following the loss of a pet. They may believe that while some level of grief is warranted, it should be a kind of reduced or secondary grief.

But J. David Bragg, who holds a doctorate in psychology and teaches at South University’s campus in Virginia Beach, Va., says that the human mind does not experience loss that way.

“The human psyche can’t differentiate between the kinds of loss that we face,” says Bragg. “Whether it is divorce, your mother’s death, or any other kind of loss, our minds process it the same way, through grief.”

Once pet bereavement is understood as being psychologically equivalent to other types of loss, pet owners should know that grief is expected and should follow the same course.

“Grief should improve with time,” says Bragg. “A good rule is that if two months pass and you’re not feeling better, you should seek professional help.” Bragg adds that the circumstances of the pet’s death may complicate matters psychologically.

For instance, pet owners who euthanized their pets may feel guilty about having made the decision to end the pet’s life. Recognizing the difficulty of the decision, some veterinarians have tried to make the process less traumatic for both owners and pets.

Instead of taking your ailing pet to a veterinary office, some vets will now perform hospice consultations and even euthanasia in your home. Dr. Azure Holland recently began offering the service in the Raleigh, N.C. area.

“It helps both pets and owners relax, making a difficult experience better for everyone,” says Holland. “Instead of a cold, sterile office, pets are more comfortable and have less anxiety than they would at the veterinary clinic.”

Holland decided to offer the service after comparing the euthanasia experience she was able to provide her clients in a vet clinic with her family’s own experience saying goodbye to the longtime family dog under his favorite tree at her parent’s home.

Bragg says that psychologically, it is helpful to have an independent opinion on when the right time to end a pet’s suffering is, since it gives you reassurance that you’re making the best decision.

“Getting a clinical assessment is important,” he says. “Sometimes we are so close to our pets that we can’t see whether we’re being selfish by extending a pet’s life for our own comfort instead of thinking solely about what’s best for the pet.”

Bragg says that our attachment to our pets stems from an innate human longing for “unconditional positive regard.” Because pets give us that kind of simple, unquestioned loyalty and respect that is so hard to find in life, it is natural to develop strong relationships with them, and to grieve when they are no longer around.

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