Years ago, a friend of mine lost a loved one. When she told others about her loss, they offered compassion — until she mentioned that her dearly departed was a cat. Needing validation for her grief, my friend started telling people that her daughter had died.
The travesty here is not my friend’s lie, but that she had to fib to receive adequate support for the pain she was experiencing. Grievers suffering unconventional losses often find themselves navigating a society unwilling to provide them with the empathy they need to heal.
I recently made the difficult decision to say goodbye to Waffle Cone, my 18-year-old cat. My loyal companion, who had followed my every move around the house for years, could barely stand anymore.
The diverse responses to Waffle Cone’s death among my friends and family were astounding. Within an hour of her death, a florist’s truck pulled up in front of my home. A friend had sent flowers with a card offering condolences. Messages from other loved ones included offers to give me hugs and homemade soup.
Not everyone was so generous with their empathy. Several people I communicate with daily knew that Waffle Cone had died and never acknowledged it. When my partner told an acquaintance about our loss, the acquaintance replied, “It’s just a cat.”
Those four words ― and other dismissive responses to grief ― are common following such tragedies and can complicate the healing process. Breakups, miscarriages, deaths of companion animals and other misfortunes can result in something called “disenfranchised grief,” which stems from losses that are not widely considered significant. In these cases, the bereaved may receive little social support and be limited in their ability to fully express their grief.
“Although grief over the loss of a cherished pet may be as intense and even as lengthy as when a significant person in our life dies, our process of mourning is quite different,” psychologist Guy Winch wrote in 2018 for Scientific American.
“Many of the societal mechanisms of social and community support are absent when a pet dies. Few of us ask our employers for time off to grieve a beloved cat or dog because we fear doing so would paint us as overly sentimental, lacking in maturity or emotionally weak. Studies have found that social support is a crucial ingredient in recovering from grief of all kinds.”
The euthanasia decision implicit in many companion animal deaths can exacerbate grief. Choosing to end the life of a loved one, especially when they cannot communicate to us whether they want to die, can be confusing and painful.
Shifting the way we think about the bereaved and their losses has powerful implications. When we let the griever decide what constitutes a loss and how significant that loss is, we can better understand what support should look like. And while everyone grieves differently, most people share in common a need for their loss to be acknowledged.
Try words like these: “I’m so sorry for your loss. This must be very difficult. Would it be helpful to talk on the phone? Can I bring you takeout? I don’t know exactly what to say, but I know this is painful, and I’m here for you.”
Send flowers or a card. Text a photo you took of the individual who passed away. Share a memory of the departed that you’ll carry with you.
If there is one thing I’ve learned from losing Waffle Cone, it’s that my grief is a reflection of my love. Big loss follows big love. Who or what we love varies dramatically from person to person. Though I may not understand someone else’s loss, I can trust their lived experience and meet them with compassion. Consoling the bereaved can be a rare and beautiful invitation to be present when love is let go.
I find that my grief is constantly evolving. I’m thankful for the people in my life who offered empathy, which paved the way to healing. As time passes, I feel my pain transforming into gratitude for the time I had with my companion and for her unconditional love.
In the words of author and dog trainer Suzanne Clothier: “There is a cycle of love and death that shapes the lives of those who choose to travel in the company of animals. … Only we know how small a price we pay for what we receive; our grief, no matter how powerful it may be, is an insufficient measure of the joy we have been given.”
Julie Knopp is a writer and animal advocate. She is a certified companion animal end-of-life doula and the board president of Compassionate Action for Animals in Minneapolis. To learn more about Julie, visit julieknopp.com or follow her on Instagram.
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