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Grieving for Pets and Humans: Which Hurts More?

Posted on 03/29/2012 by |Personal Health and Well-being | Comments

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The day after my mother died, an acquaintance earnestly told me, “I know just how you feel. My beloved dog passed away last month.”

I admit I was insulted. I know she was trying to be empathetic, but really, how can grief over a pet be the same as grief over a parent?

But perhaps I was wrong. Washington Post food editor Joe Yonan wrote a moving story this week about his grief over the death of his dog, Red, compared to how he felt after losing his father and then his sister.

The intensity of his sorrow over his pet surprised him.

As he explained it:

I’m no stranger to death. I was a mess of anger and confusion when my father, suffering the aftermath of a stroke, took his last gasps one day in 1995, his children gathered around his hospital bed. And three years later, the death of my sweet, beloved sister Bonny after a withering battle with brain cancer was nothing short of heartbreaking. Yet somehow, and much to my distress, the death of my dog seems even harder. I haven’t felt grief quite like this since, well, the death of my previous dog five years ago.

He wrote touchingly of his guilt and anguish over his dog’s sudden death, second-guessing his decisions and feeling guilty over not doing more — all feelings many of us have felt when a (human) family member dies suddenly.

Yonan’s piece touched a nerve with pet lovers, generating nearly 300 comments, as well as an online reader discussion about pet loss with him and Sandra Barker, director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University. Barker counsels grieving pet owners and teaches veterinary students the importance of understanding the process.

Barker explained that the unconditional, nonjudgmental love offered by animals — “they’re just happy you’re there,” as she put it — can make it especially hard to lose them.

Yonan agreed, writing that his relationships with his pets have been simpler than those with his relatives, particularly his father, “whose love and support seemed to always have strings attached.”

Still, experts acknowledge that many people, including pet owners, feel that grief over the death of a pet is not worthy of as much acknowledgment as the death of a person, as a 2003 article in the journal Professional Psychology: Research and Practice points out. “Unfortunately, this tends to inhibit people from grieving fully when a pet dies.”

In Yonan’s case, he decided that writing about Red would be part of his grieving process — and perhaps a way for many of us, pet owners or not, to reflect on the loss of a loved one who was integral to our lives.

(Please feel free to share in the comments below how the loss of a cherished pet affected you.)

In other health news:

Bone marrow donors can be paid for their donations. A federal appeals court on Tuesday declined to reconsider a ruling that allows bone marrow donors to be paid for their donations like blood donors. Previously, donating bone marrow was classified the same as donating a kidney or any other organ, and payments were forbidden, punished by jail time. But the court ruled that newer procedures make donating bone marrow nearly identical to donating blood, Reuters reported.

FDA adds warning to antidepressant Celexa and its generics. Health regulators added new warnings to the label of antidepressant Celexa and its generic versions about rare heart diseases and the maximum dose — 20 mg. daily — for patients over age 60.

The case for sleeping medicine. Several recent studies have highlighted the health risks of sleeping pills. Lifelong insomniac Gayle Greene has a slightly different view. Greene, who has written extensively on the problem, points out that while sleeping pills do have risks, so does chronic sleep loss, as she writes in the New York Times. She also has a website, sleepstarved.org, for more discussion of insomnia issues.


Photo credit: muchogroucho.com