science of us

The Grief Counselor Helping People Mourn Their Pets

Photo: Christian Fischer/Getty Images/EyeEm

One of the loneliest types of grief might be that of a person mourning a pet. Seeing an animal pass away, like caring for one who’s sick, can carry a heavy emotional burden — but because it’s not a human, most people don’t give enough credit to just how devastating it can be.

But mourning pet owners have at least one source of comfort always at the ready: grief hotlines specifically for them, staffed with counselors waiting to help the person on the other end of the line work through this specific type of loss. Psychologist Stephanie LaFarge is the founder and operator of one such hotline, the ASPCA Pet Loss Hotline. We spoke with LaFarge about the details of her job, the unique needs of bereaved animal lovers, and what she’s learned about the depths of the pet-human relationship. 

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I get about 2,000 calls a year. It’s very comparable to loss of a human relationship. Most of our bonds with our animals are devoid of ambivalence and other human complications like that, so the grief itself is felt very, very intensely — but unfortunately, we have no language for it. People try to explain their loss and say, “This is my child,” or “This is my best friend.” But that’s not an accurate way of putting it. It’s almost more intimate.

People feel so isolated at the loss of a pet. The bond with an animal is not given the same status or respect or intellectual validation that other relationships are. It’s what we call a disenfranchised grief. Two or three days of sympathy is what most people get at work. After that, because animals are thought to be replaceable, people say, “Well, you can solve this problem. Just go get another one.” Sometimes people say, “Well, you’re sad now, but thank god it wasn’t your mother or your child.” And that causes people to feel that their own grief is dismissed. And that’s some of the purpose of the hotline, to provide people with assurance that what they are feeling is valid.

The time since the loss is the most important variable to establish right away. If it’s within the past week, people are just shocked, really shocked at how intense their grief is. They want to be reassured that what they’re feeling is normal for this stage in the grieving process. If it’s been more than a month, I usually ask people if they feel like they are going in the right direction — occasionally, people will say the grief has become more complicated. Then it’s my job to suggest that they reach out to another resource, a face-to-face resource, because grief can get stuck depending on what else is going on in your life.

The most urgent calls that I get are from a parent whose pet has died, or the vet has just said they need to be euthanized, and they want to know how to talk to their child. Pet loss, we know, can be a very positive experience for a child, because it shows the child: What does our family do when something sad happens? So we encourage the child to see this as a normal part of life and that we stick together when these things happen, and you will grieve and then you will reinvest in a new relationship. That’s the whole purpose of healthy grieving.

Other calls [come from] people that are primarily concerned about the other animals in their home, how they are going to grieve. I remind people that companion animals rarely make themselves sick from grief if they lose a member of their pack, but their behavior will change, and people need to be reassured that the animal can handle this loss. They are grieving along with you, but you don’t need to do anything special for them. Occasionally an owner can be so grief-stricken that they project their grief onto their other pets, and they need to be reminded that the dog will pick up on their grief and their anxiety, and they need to be careful.

Most people call in the evening or on weekends, because that’s when they’re most free to get in touch with the emotions that are evoked in even making the phone call — the impact of the loss, the loneliness, hits people most when they come home from being out of the house. Some people try to stay out of the house as much as possible, but eventually you have to come home.

The hotline is the most — I hesitate to use this word, but it’s the most nourishing and refreshing part of my day. Because you are working very closely with people and you’re almost always able to be helpful.
It’s a rare treat for a mental-health professional.

The ASPCA Pet Loss Hotline operates between the hours of 12 pm to 12 am EST, and can be reached by calling (877) GRIEF-1.

The Grief Counselor Helping People Mourn Their Pets