Companion Animal Loss and Grief

It’s only a dog…you can get another one!

If you have ever lost a close non-human companion and someone has said these words, ‘it was only a dog/cat/horse…you can get another one…’, supposedly trying to rouse you from your sadness, you will know only too well how much it hurts to hear them. And it hurts on a number of levels.

It hurts because that person doesn’t understand how deep your bond with your non-human was; because you feel you can’t talk to them, or others, for fear of being thought foolish; because there isn’t the social support available like there would have been if it was a significant human that you lost, and you have to cope on your own; because the loss has hit you hard and you’re tired and stressed but can’t get compassionate leave at work, like you could if it was a significant human that you lost…

And…‘get another one’…like all dogs/cats/horses… are homogenous, replicable ‘things’, not individual beings, with distinct personalities and characteristics.

But, of course, it hurts most of all because you have just lost a friend that you have had a very close connection with who just happened to be a non-human.

This mess of hurt and misunderstanding stems from the intersections and interactions of a number of fundamental concepts, including, inter alia: the dominant Western paradigm of a human/nature dichotomy; understandings of disenfranchised grief; attachment theories; and notions of other-ness and belonging-ness. This piece will briefly address the first two concepts to highlight ways in which adherence to long established value systems comes to impact on the grief process and shape the way we are expected to grieve over lost non-human companions.

The dominant Western paradigm for understanding humanity’s relationship with the rest of the natural world has its roots in the philosophies underpinning much classical thought, religious doctrine and traditions of science, particularly Enlightenment science and scientism. Each of these philosophical traditions has been highly influential in entrenching the now taken-for-granted human/nature dualism: not only separating humans from nature but also placing them above nature, in a hierarchical relationship with it. This has resulted in the prevailing hubristic anthropocentric assumption and the general devaluing and trivialising of non-human animals and, consequently, the minimising of personal connections/bonds with them.

Overlaying this with Derrida’s strategy of deconstruction, which exposes tensions and instabilities within texts (regardless of type), reveals the way in which the establishing of binary opposites, such good/evil, man/woman, human/nature, fixes particular positions of power. In these binaries, the second placed term is subordinate to the first placed term and this placement becomes fixed in dialogue and discourse. In this way then, the ‘order’ becomes taken-for-granted, unquestioned, ‘natural’, unproblematic and politically neutral.

In the late 1980s Kenneth Doka used the term disenfranchised grief to name the grief that is largely not easily recognised or considered acceptable by society. The term can encompass such losses as the death of a secret lover, the loss of a limb and the resulting loss of a lifestyle, the loss of property to which there had been significant emotional attachment and, not surprisingly, the loss of a pet (which can also encompass non-death loss). These latter losses, particularly, are generally deemed to be much less significant than the loss of a human.

Not only is the human-non-human bond broadly trivialized, it has also tended to be pathologised by the mental health professions. Perceptions prevail that strong bonds between a person and their pet are more likely to be found in people with poor person to person attachments, and who use companion animals as surrogate friends or family. The human-human bond has become the normative measure for judging the ability to form, and the quality of, relationships/bonds and subsequently, and implicitly, the human-non-human bond has been deemed inferior. However, this tendency to pathologise such attachments overlooks the evidence that they can be formed in addition to other, so-called ‘healthy’, person to person relationships and as such are not psychopathological. The judgment of the human-non-human bond as inferior enmeshes the bias inherent in the dominant Western paradigm with the disenfranchisement of pet loss grief.

However, understanding the deep-seated ideologies at play in societal attitudes toward grieving and the grief process does little to assuage the despair of the griever. The range and depths of emotions felt at the loss of a non-human are the same as those felt at the loss of a human. What is needed is a greater understanding of, and respect for, the human-non-human bond and the same compassion that would otherwise be shown at a time of loss. What is needed is an attitudinal shift in society, more generally, toward one of greater respect for non-human life and the flow-on effects will impact for the better in ways that many would not normally consider.

Author: Dian Fowles

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2 thoughts on “Companion Animal Loss and Grief

  1. Thanks for this post. I have worked with people with disabilities and older people who have needed supported to care for their loved furry/scaled/feathered ones but instead have had their companion animals literally removed from them with no attempts to put in place things that were needed (like support or equipment) in order for the family (humans and non-huamans) to stay together. I can’t imagine having that happen to me because I acquired a disability or my age meant I needed help to care for them mean that my most treasured family members where whipped away from me, no doubt in times I needed them most. This is one of the problems as seeing animals as “property” I guess.

  2. Pingback: ‘Eroding the Barrier?’ Inter-Species Relations | Animals in Society Working Group

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