The Lost Good-Bye: Grieving missing companion animals
15th January 2018
Often when we talk about pet bereavement we think about pets that have died, but there is another type of loss that is, often not discussed but, no less significant.
Hundreds of our beloved pets go missing each year. According to a U.S. study, a random sample of 817 and 506 dog and cat-owning households reported that 14% of dogs and 15% of cats went missing in the past five years (Weiss, Slater & Lord, 2012). Available statistics suggest that, thankfully, many dogs and cats are reunited with their owners within approximately twelve weeks. For some though, reunification can take much longer than this or sadly may never occur.
Coming to terms with a loss of a companion can be extremely difficult and stressful.
Pet parents may be faced with many unanswered questions surrounding the fate of their beloved animals and this can make closure very difficult. In addition to feelings of sadness and loneliness, those missing a pet may experience intense feelings of fear, guilt and anger. If a pet has wandered from home and not returned, there may be grave fears for their safety. If a beloved pet escaped through an unlatched gate for example, pet parents may be left with feelings of guilt. They may be haunted by questions like “If only…” or “I wish I had…”.
There may also be feelings of anger. A pet may be feared stolen and the anger may be directed at whoever stole the animal or found them and never returned them. Anger may also be directed at another household member if they had unknowingly left a gate or door open.
All these feelings are manifestations of grief. The grief experienced from a lost animal can be described as a particular type of grief, called ambiguous grief. It can be a stressful kind of loss that some people find very difficult to resolve.
There are several reasons why ambiguous loss experienced from a missing pet can be particularly difficult. The loss is often unexpected and sudden so there is no opportunity to say good-bye. This form of loss may also not be openly recognised by others. There is ambiguity surrounding the loss because, while the pet is physically absent, they may still be alive. It is important to remember here that although this might be the case, the bond with the pet has still been broken and a loss has still occurred.
Pet parents may also find this loss particularly difficult because they may fear that finding closure means giving up on finding their pet. This, however, does not have to be the case. It is still possible to regain a sense of peace without giving up on them. Sadly, if this loss is not resolved, pet parents may experience the pain of grief for many years.
For those of you that might be experiencing this form of grief, the following tips may help bring you some comfort.
Recognise that you’re grieving.
Recognise that ambiguous grief is real and that this grief must be expressed and processed just like any other loss.
Stop the self-blame.
This, of course, can be easier said than done especially if a pet has gone missing because of, an open gate, for example. It is, however, important to remember that for someone to be truly guilty there must be intent and I’m quite sure that those of you who have lost a pet because of an error did not wake up in the morning and think “I’m going to leave the gate open today so Fluffy can run away”. We are only human and being human means that we make mistakes despite the best of our intentions.
Think about what your beloved pet would want you to do.
Sometimes it can be comforting to think about what your pet would want for you. Our animals love unconditionally. Would they want you to be feeling angry and guilty or would they want to thank-you for all the love and care that you had shown them before they went missing?
Write about it.
To help you make sense of your loss, you could write about it in a journal. This can help you to gain a sense of control over the event and make sense of your experiences. You could also write a letter or poem. This can be written to your pet so that you have the opportunity to say all the things that you wish you could have said to them when they were with you.
Adjusting to ambiguous loss.
Without news of the fate of your pet, closure may be difficult and gradual or it may not occur at all and that is completely ok. You do not have to give up on your pet and forget about them for you to move forward and readjust to life without their presence. Coping may well reside in your ability to sit with the ambiguity of not knowing. It may also reside in your ability to be at peace with the paradox of coping with loss with the possibility that they are alive and may someday return.
Join a pet loss support group.
There are many pet loss and missing pet support groups available online through Facebook. If you cannot find one that is the right fit for you, you could start your own support group in honour of your beloved pet. These groups can provide both validation and support during this stressful time.
Seek support from understanding friends, family and fellow animal lovers.
Social support is really important at this time. Seek support from those who understand and validate your loss.
Seek professional support.
If you’re finding the loss of your missing pet overwhelming, it may help to speak with a professional who specialises in loss and coping.
Dr Vanessa Rohlf offers private and confidential consultations on all forms of animal bereavement and loss. She consults from her Malvern, Victoria, Australia Office or via telephone or Skype. Contact her on 0419 322451 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Boss, Pauline (1999). Ambiguous Loss: Learning to live with unresolved grief. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Lord, L. K., Wittum, T. E., Ferketich, A. K., Funk, J. A., & Rajala-Schultz, P. J. (2007a). Search and identification methods that owners use to find a lost dog. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 230, 211-216. Retrieved www.localpethealth.com.dnnmax.com/Portals/0/searchmethodsusedtofindalostdog.pdf
Lord, L. K., Wittum, T. E., Ferketich, A. K., Funk, J. A. Rajala-Schultz, P. J. (2007b). Search and identification methods that owners use to find a lost cat. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 230, 217-220. Retrieved www.localpethealth.com.dnnmax.com/Portals/0/searchmethodsusedtofindlostcats.pdf
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Weiss, E., Slater M. & Lord, L. (2012). Frequency of lost dogs and cats in the United States and the methods used to locate them. Anthrozoos, 2, 301-315. Retrieved www.mdpi.com/2076-2615/2/2/301/htm