By Dr. Becker
Almost all U.S. pet owners (95 percent) consider their pets to be members of the family, according to a 2015 Harris poll,1 and many also display behaviors to back up the sentiment.
For instance, nearly half of pet owners have bought birthday presents for their pets. Another 31 percent frequently or occasionally cook for their pets, while the majority let their pets sleep in their beds and buy them holiday presents.
Nearly one-quarter of pet owners also dress their pet up in some type of clothing while 12 percent occasionally bring their pet to work. We’ve integrated pets into virtually every aspect of our lives, save one – their deaths.
While it’s clearly expected that a person take leave from work following a death in the family, the definition of “family” doesn’t typically extend to pets. Yet, as anyone who has lost a pet knows, the death of a pet can feel virtually as painful as the loss of any other member of the family.
Some Companies Offer Paid Pet Bereavement Days
It’s certainly not the norm, nor is it required by federal or state laws, but some forward-thinking companies are granting their employees time off to grieve after a pet dies.
It makes perfect sense, especially considering 30 percent of pet owners say they still felt sadness over the loss of a pet at least six months later. Grief from the loss of pet involves many of the same emotions as any death in the family, including disbelief, guilt and anger.
In the immediate aftermath of such a loss, it takes time to regroup and become productive again. Animal pet loss counselor Janet Zimmerman told CBS New York:2
“It’s really very, very difficult to function, and if you can’t function, you certainly can’t function at work, and you’re really not the person you were before. You need the time to get back to some sense of normality.”
Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants, for instance, gives employees up to three days off after the death of a pet. And that’s not all. This hotel and restaurant group, based in San Francisco, has had a pet-friendly policy since 1981.
Employees may bring their pets to work with them at the hotels and some of them have a resident dog (or “Director of Pet Relations”) to greet guests. Pet perks aside from bereavement leave for a pet’s death include pet insurance and on-site amenities such as water bowls, treats, beds and toys.
Trupanion, a pet insurance company, offers one paid pet bereavement day, while other companies, including VM Ware and Maxwell Health, offer employees flexible days off that can be used for pet bereavement.3
Why Taking Time Off to Grieve Is Important
Everyone’s grieving process is different, but it’s important to be easy on yourself and give yourself permission to grieve the loss. If you can, take a personal day off from work and allow yourself to process what has occurred.
You may feel shock and disbelief, guilt and anger on top of your sadness. All of these are normal and allowing yourself to feel the emotions will help with the healing process. Resist the urge to go right back to your normal routine without taking time for yourself.
As researchers wrote in the journal Society & Animals, humans have been mourning the loss of pets since ancient times.
The ancient Egyptians mourned their dogs and cats, and in Japan there are 465 companion animal memorial temples where companion animals can be buried and memorialized with special ritual services.4
Further, the study found losing a pet may be just as difficult as losing a human family member. Researchers wrote:5
“It is conceivable that the death of a companion animal can be just as devastating as the loss of a human significant other … Sife (1993) believed that “the mourning for a pet can be far more intense than for a human” …
Gerwolls and Labott (1994) maintained that psychological and physical problems typically associated with grief over human deaths also seem to occur in companion animal guardians.
… Gerwolls and Labott (1994) found that subjects at 2, 8, and 26 weeks following the death of a companion animal did not score significantly lower (indicating less grief) on the Grief
Experience Inventory than did those who had suffered a human loss.”
“Reframing the Story” to Help With Grief
Dr. Linda Harper, a psychologist who runs a pet loss support group in Chicago, suggests first honoring your feelings and then “reframing your story” to help you heal.
She told the Chicago Tribune about her own pet loss, in which her dog passed away at home with her husband while she was away. According to the Tribune:
“She was scheduled to leave the following day on a retreat. As sad as she was that she was not present when the dog succumbed in her husband's arms, she said, "It all makes sense now." She'd been nervous about leaving him because he'd been ill.
"By reframing the story, I was able to focus on telling a story that I was so blessed to have him. I felt like he was helping me through his death.
He was helping my clients and me learn how we can feel our feelings, honor them, but then tell our story focusing on the positive; the good things," she said.”
As mentioned, if possible talk to your employer about taking a personal day or two after losing a pet. Use the time to take care of yourself and accept your feelings. Whatever you are feeling is right, and when you’re able allow yourself to remember the joy, compassion and love that your pet brought you.
“Hold your grieving heart with compassion," Dr. Harper told the Tribune. "Feelings are never wrong. Yes, there's tremendous sadness, but let the joy in too when you have memories of good times and laughter."
There are also a variety of excellent books covering the topic of pet loss.