(This is an article reprinted from an earlier post, when we lost our faithful old cat 4 years ago.)
Some might think true grief is reserved for our fellow homo-sapiens, but as a moving tribute from one British politician shows, the loss of a pet prompts real mourning.
Even in the UK, which has what is seen by many non-Britons as a slightly repressed attitude towards death, prolonged mourning and visible grief is considered normal for the death of a family member or a close friend.
But in a nation of animal lovers there are many who feel almost the same way about the loss of a pet, but whose emotions occasionally provoke raised eyebrows.
The writer, broadcaster and former Labour deputy leader Lord Hattersley wrote this week (originally in 2010) in a newspaper about his grief for Buster his canine companion of 15 years, who died in October. “I sat in the first floor room in which I work, watching my neighbours go about their lives, amazed and furious that they were behaving as if it was a normal day,” wrote Hattersley. “Stop all the clocks. Buster was dead.”
History is full of close relationships between man and beast. Read any history of Alexander and Bucephalus, his horse and constant companion, looms large. Much missed after his death at the Battle of the Hydaspes, a new city in what is now Pakistan was named after him. And what greater symbol of animal constancy can there be than Greyfriars Bobby, a terrier who supposedly spent 14 years faithfully attending his master’s grave in Edinburgh.
ANIMALS IN AFTERLIFE
Some in ancient Egypt mummified cats and thought they had afterlife. Animal heaven frequently referred to in US and UK as ‘Rainbow Bridge’ comes from anonymous 1980s prose poem. It starts: ‘When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together’
“For anybody who has had a pet in their life they form a unique and very special member of the family, and remain so,” says Margot Clarke, manager of the Pet Bereavement Support Service. “In terms of that very special bond that individuals share it’s like any bond, once it’s broken, individuals feel that loss. That is expressed as grief.”
Many of those who contact the PBSS are disappointed by the reaction of those around them to their loss. “They often trivialise that loss and don’t recognise it as being special and unique,” says Ms Clarke. “A lot of people say ‘just get another pet’. But the time has to be right.”
Established 16 years ago, the PBSS is a joint venture between the charity Blue Cross and the Society for Companion Animal Studies and provides what it terms “emotional support” – primarily by phone – rather than formal counselling for pet owners.
“A lot of our callers say to us ‘Gosh I didn’t feel this bad when I lost my father or mother or sister’,” says Ms Clarke. It’s a state of mind that Bob Nicholson can understand, having lost his dog Ivo, a Collie cross, after 16-and-a-half years. Mr Nicholson, of Fife, had raised Ivo from from a puppy to his death in September.
“I do not pretend that my grief was unique – I merely state, as a matter of fact, that nothing has ever caused me as much pain as Buster’s death”
– Roy Hattersley
When Mr Nicholson, of Fife, had lost his father, the dog was there to help. When Ivo died, no-one was there. The dog had been a link to a father and a brother who had gone. Now that link was gone. “It’s left a massive hole in my life. I lost my father two years ago. When my dad died the dog was there. I felt a bit ashamed – losing my dog actually affected me more than when I lost my father.” The lack of understanding from some people is an aggravating factor. “Some people feel disdain [as] it was only a dog.”
With the strength of these feelings, it is perhaps not surprising that many pet owners want to mark the death of their beloved animals. In Mr Nicholson’s case he went to Dawn Murray, who runs the Pet Undertaker business from her home near Lanark. She organises cremations, removing the bodies from the owner’s homes or vets’ practices in a special animal hearse, taking them to dedicated pet crematoria and then returning the ashes to the owners. About 200 owners a year book cremations and there is the occasional burial as well.
“The dog or the cat isn’t just part of the family it is their family. It may be they want their pet treated with the same dignity accorded to any member of the family. If granny died in hospital you wouldn’t leave the doctor to make the funeral arrangements.”
It is not just cats and dogs that are commended to her. She has dealt with everything from newts and lizards to degus, chinchilla-like rodents.
Many pets are regarded like family members: People also call her for reassurance and practical advice. Two issues loom large over pet bereavement – people not being taken seriously, and the need to take time out to mourn. “Most people they take the day off but most tend to tell a lie for fear of ridicule or that the boss won’t understand,” says Ms Murray. “They take a day off sick leave rather than admit to being off because of pet bereavement.” Many of those facing up to such sadness want spiritual reassurance. When humans die, many religious relatives have the consolation of their belief in an afterlife.
In the world of pet bereavement, this is often referred to as “Rainbow Bridge”, based on a prose poem written by an anonymous author in the 1980s. There are countless references to it on message boards and tribute sites. “Rainbow Bridge is a mythical pet heaven,” says Ms Murray. “The spiritual side of pet bereavement is powerful. [Those that believe in it] come from all walks of life – they are not wacky people.” Very loosely inspired by the Norse legend of Bifroest, the “rainbow bridge” represents the notion that owners will meet their pets again after death in a joyous reunion.
Cremations and even burials are wanted by some owners. It may be argued that it fills a gap left by the treatment of animals in some mainstream religions. “The churches have been slow to recognise the spiritual significance of the human-animal bond,” says Rev Prof Andrew Linzey, an Anglican priest and director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics.
“When a companion animal dies, we feel a natural sense of dislocation and loss. The churches should offer us rites to help us deal with our bereavement.” Prof Linzey addressed this issue when he decided to bury his beloved dog Barney in the garden. As it seemed there were no prayers or liturgies specifically for the death of pets, he wrote the book Animal Rites.
And of course, there is something near unique about pet bereavement – the issue of euthanasia.
Many pet owners have had to make a decision that only tiny numbers ever have to make about a human relative – the decision to end a life, with all the guilt that that entails…
– Ryan Price (2010)
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