Updated: Oct 13
Dogs, cats and other pets get discussed quite a lot in therapy sessions. Firstly, as a positive resource (we use them in imagery to connect with a sense of calm and nurturing), secondly in terms of the anxiety people have about missing them when they leave home (e.g. to move out or to go to university) or fearing that they won’t cope when their pet dies.
If you have lost a pet recently then you might be feeling lost yourself. You may be wondering what support is available but feel embarrassed at the idea of approaching a therapist for this reason. The thing that a therapist would consider is the different ways that you might be struggling with their death. Here are some thoughts I have about this.
Everyone has a role within their family. You don’t typically choose this role, you just fall into it from the way your family treat you and from what you believe is expected from you. For example, you might be the one who sorts out disagreements; the one that everybody tends to baby or tease; the one who organises things or the one who provides a shoulder to cry on. This blog isn’t the place to go into detail about your role but to start thinking about the role your pet has had in your family and in your life, because pets also have a role in a family. They may be the one that everyone enjoys spoiling, the one that everyone talks to when they're down or they may have a slightly different relationship with each family member, and a particularly attachment to one person in particular.
Lets think about dog owners for a moment. For many people I've worked with in therapy their dog is the first (or only) one to greet them at the door when they arrive home, or is the only one to notice when they feel upset or stressed. Perhaps your dog (or cat) was the one to snuggle up with you at night which helped you to sleep, or sat and cuddled you when you were sad. There might have been days when your pet was the only reason you got out of bed or dressed because you had to look after them.
So your pet may have had a few roles in your family life. You will therefore have a strong attachment to them that feels as intense as it would to any other member of your family. This attachment is particularly strong if, 1) your pet was in your life from a young age, 2) you've had your pet for a long time or 3) your other family members (especially your parents) have been unable to meet your needs fully, perhaps because they’re too busy, have their own emotional difficulties or have been neglectful or abusive.
Soothing and playfulness
Two other very important elements that you get from your pet are 1) the soothing effects of oxytocin which is a hormone released into your blood stream from cuddling. This soothes anxiety and stress. In therapy we can recreate this with images of your pet to support a calming of an anxious nervous system, you may find looking at photos or videos of them has this effect too. And 2) the tendency to be quite playful and mindful when we are with our pets; stroking, grooming, playing catch or walking them tend to be calming activities that can bring us into the present moment. These allow you to drop mindful moments into your day without having to try too hard, and mindfulness is very good for mental wellbeing.
“But I feel stupid”
When we lose someone that we have a strong attachment to this is very painful, it literally lights up the same areas of the brain as physical pain does*. There is a dominant idea in our culture that we should ‘get over’ the loss of a pet very quickly. For example, there’s no bereavement-leave for this and people can be dismissive or change the subject very quickly. This assumes that your pet had a minor role to play in your life and downplays the important attachment you had. For this reason I often find that people feel embarrassed to talk about their strong feelings for their pet and will caveat it with “this is so stupid but…” before sharing how much they miss their pet if they have died or how intense their fear is of them dying.
Coping without your pet
If your pet has only just died then you need to give yourself some time to grieve. However, it might be that this is the first time you’ve had to live without an important soothing and mindful figure in your life and for some people this can highlight the lack of other mechanisms that they have for coping with intense emotions. You will have a sense of this is you find yourself doing unhealthy behaviours to numb emotional pain, (which you did less of when your pet was around e.g. self-harm, drinking, spending money, emotional eating). You may also be at a loss for how to be playful and mindful without them. This suggests that you may need to learn other coping skills in therapy so you can manage these emotions more effectively.
The way you cope with this loss may also highlight other issues which weren’t so obvious until you lost your pet, such as low self-esteem beliefs like “no one else loves me” or “I’m not capable”.
Give yourself permission to speak to someone
So if you are surprised at how difficult you are finding the loss of your pet please don’t put yourself down or be hard on yourself. It could be the raw grief from losing a significant figure in your life, but it could also be shining a light on areas of your life that were masked by your pet’s comforting presence. Maybe now is the time to start looking at these in therapy?
*Acetaminophen Reduces Social Pain: Behavioral and Neural Evidence (2010), Psychological Science, Vol 7, 931-937