Grief over death of a pet can be as severe as losing a human, psychologists say

The death of a pet can be just as painful as the death of a family member, psychologists have claimed.

And yet, people are often embarrassed to express the depth of their grief when they lose a companion animal.

Consultant clinical psychologist Dr Pat Franklish commented: 'It is as painful, because it's about attachment. If the significant attachment figure is a pet rather than a person, then the loss is the same. It's the loss of a key attachment figure.'  

'For people who live alone with a pet, and they don't have a person they're close to, they only have a pet they are close to, it's worse.' 

She continued: 'If you've got parents and children, brothers and sisters, and lots of people in your life it may fall into a slightly different category. But if the animals in your life are your main attachment figures, then your loss is the same as it would be for a person.' 

Grief is universally acknowledged as one of the most profoundly difficult emotions humans ever have to face

Consultant Practitioner Psychologist Ingrid Collins, who is the director of The Soul Therapy Centre in London, agrees that the death of an animal can be profoundly painful.

'Any bereavement of a loved one is painful and the pain is in direct measure to the quality of the relationship we enjoyed with that loved one,' explained Ingrid.

'Often our pets enjoy a special place in our hearts because the connection is generally so honest and uncomplicated. 

'In return for our care, compassion, and concern for their wellbeing, pets offer us a loving connection to the natural world, and they are more honest than most humans in the expression of emotions.'

The lack of rituals surrounding the death of a companion animal can also compound the grief, with people often lacking support. 

According to Dr Franklish: 'People who don't keep pets often don't have any understanding at all, so they can be inadvertently (or sometimes deliberately) unkind, and sometimes shrug it off,' she said.

'They can say "it's only a cat, it's only a dog', where in fact to the individual who lost (the animal) they were much more than that.'

For Ingrid Collins, the lack of formal mourning rituals means we "don’t give ourselves the opportunity for closure" when an animal dies'. 

'Often, children are admonished for displaying their distress over the loss of a beloved pet, because "it's only an animal!" and it often is swiftly replaced with another. 

'We learn in this way that animal lives have less value than human lives, and that our investment in love and care was not of the same value as that which we afford to humans.'

According to psychologist Ingrid Collins: 'Any bereavement process, be it from a human or animal loved one, involves guilt that comes after the initial numbing in disbelief and unwillingness to accept the reality of their passing. 

'As our animals quite often elicit feelings akin to parental emotions, our feelings of responsibility are compounded. 

'It is the most painful decision to take to end the physical presence of the beautiful soul who has given love, loyalty and trust to us.' 

'The first step is to own and acknowledge our painful emotions, and remember the reasons why the circumstances leading to our decision tipped the scales to that particular decision to action.' 

Dr Franklish added: 'You can save your pet pain and distress [by euthanising them] and that should give you a clear conscience, and not a guilty one.' 

She went on to offer advice on how you can try and work through the grief when your beloved pet has died.

'Most of us go and get another one, so replacement is one thing. Another thing is getting in contact with someone who's had a similar loss to share the pain,' said Dr Franklish.

The consultant clinical psychologist went on to say that when it comes to dealing with feelings of guilt around replacing a dead companion animal, it is a 'cognitive exercise as much as an emotional one'.   

'Whichever way we look at it, dogs and cats aren't going to live as long as us, so we can't possibly expect one to last all our lives,' she explained. 'It's about facing the realism of that. And if they could talk, they would tell us to go and get another answer.' 

Other tips she has for working through grief include 'avoiding people who might not understand', until a time when it's 'manageable for you to talk about it without crying,' and getting in touch with a helpline - such as the Blue Cross' pet bereavement and loss service.   

The key takeaway, Dr Franklish said, is that 'the grief is real, and needs to be acknowledged as such by the person experiencing it and those around them'. 

Ingrid Collins concluded: 'Grief ebbs and flows like the tide, and eventually subsides over time. However, If we become aware that our painful emotions are impeding the progress of our emotional wellbeing, that is the time to seek therapeutic help.'