Most parents won’t outlive their children. But pet parents take in a beloved family member knowing that their pet won’t be with them forever.
Pet parents also face judgment from others that we don’t face when grieving a person. When a person dies, we’re met with sympathy, compassion, and comfort. But when a pet dies, we’re met with insensitivity. Anytime someone says your pet was “just a pet” feels like a blow to the heart.
It is completely natural–even healthy–to mourn for your pet. But there’s also a line between healthy and unhealthy grief. So the question is, when does grief become unhealthy?
Why We Grieve for Our Pets
To understand that, you have to consider why we grieve in the first place.
The truth is, no pet is “just a pet”. Pets are an integral part of our lives, and losing a pet means losing the many daily rituals you take for granted while your pet is alive.
A pet is also different from a person in that our relationships are more and less complicated than human relationships. Dogs might pee on the rug or ruin your furniture and cats might ignore you, but a pet provides love and companionship in a completely different way than a person.
People are messy. We have intricate internal lives governed by dozens of rules and feelings and whims. Your relationship to a romantic partner can become complicated with time, populated by highs and lows that change the fabric of your relationship.
Your relationship to your pet evolves too, but you’re the center of your pet’s world. You’re their person, for better or for worse. They rely on you and give love in a way that’s completely unconditional.
When you lose a pet, you’re losing a companion you could rely on to give and receive love. The entire landscape of your life changes, much like it does when a person dies.
What is “Normal” Grief, Anyway?
There’s no such thing as “normal” grief. Or, at least, there’s no such thing as linear grief.
Grief researchers have started to move beyond the Kubler-Ross grief stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) to address the chaotic nature of grief. Instead, think of grief as acute or integrated.
The acute grief phase occurs shortly after your loss and involves all the rollercoaster emotions that we typically attach to grief. The integrated phase is much longer, where you accept your grief and acknowledge that it has a place in your life without dominating your life.
“Normal” grief, as it were, is a temporary response to loss. The keyword is temporary–it passes. The timeline is different for everyone, but the grief does pass.
So, When Does Grief Become Unhealthy?
Grief becomes unhealthy when you start dealing with complicated grief.
If normal grief is a pit stop, so to speak, complicated grief is when you set up camp instead of moving on. The features of complicated grief resemble that of normal grief, with one key exception: you can’t move on.
The transition from normal grief into a new “normal” comes as you learn to reconcile what you lost with your new reality and accept your new reality as it stands.
Grief becomes unhealthy when you’re unable to accept the reality of your loss and cling to your loss and hopelessness.
Learning to Mourn, Learning to Live
A pet is a family member, and you have the right to mourn them deeply.
When does grief become unhealthy? In short, when you become so trapped in the loss of your pet that you forget the joy they brought you and forget that they wouldn’t have wanted you to be so unhappy.
Mourning is more than just being strong. Mourning is, in many ways, a time to learn what it means to live. Life is about accepting the highs and lows in equal measure and knowing that the lows don’t cancel out the highs.