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The Vacuum Issue 4 spacer Issue 4
Pet Death
by Douglas J. Davies
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Pets have become honorary people. We talk to them, give them personal names, their own dishes and beds and buy them their own food and clothing. They may sleep on their owner's bed and regularly sit with them. We have a great deal of contact with them, stroking and, as the word has it, 'petting' them. Pets become so important to some of us that when they die we feel bereaved. The gloom that descends upon a house and family can easily carry the shadow of the cloud brought when a human family member dies. The comfort and friendship brought by the pet, especially by dogs and cats, now becomes a notable absence. But is it really appropriate to talk of such feelings as grief? Some might say that we have become far too sentimental and take pets, especially dogs, far too much into our own lives. For others this bonding between human and animals is perfectly acceptable, reflecting as it does a relationship with roots deep in our prehistory. In many corners of western worlds is it appropriate to see pet death framed by a kind of bereavement and its experience of grief
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One of the best ways of thinking about grief is to see it as the response to loss. In life we become increasingly attached to people, places and things and when the time comes to cut that link, for whatever reason, we experience the loss of attachment. The greater the part played in our lives by the object of our attention the greater the loss. But it is relationships that come to be most filled by powerful feelings of attachment and that is why it is the death of those we love that strikes hardest at us. Sometimes people speak of retirement and other aspects of life as a kind of bereavement and when they do so it is to this break of attachment that they refer. Still, it is death and the loss involved in the death of those to whom we are bound, that brings the real pain of bereavement. And this is where pets have come to be significant, especially in a world where relationships with other people can become reduced in number.
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Pets become a kind of honorary human, they become friends, most especially for those who spend a great deal of their time with them. To live alone perhaps, or to be bereaved of one's partner is to experience a degree of social void into which pets come with great comfort. Such a pet comes to occupy a place in people's lives that is hard for others to understand. Busy people with hectic jobs who deal with many people every day can often find it hard to imagine a world in which an elderly or disabled man or woman hardly meets or speaks to anyone all day long. A pet can be a vital oasis of friendship within such a human desert. Under those conditions we talk to our pets, we speak to them of times past and of persons past. For an elderly person who has lost their spouse the dog becomes the continuing link with the dead husband or wife. Indeed, if and when that dog then dies the grief felt by the survivor is all the greater because she had not only lost her dog but also her final personal link with her previously deceased husband. She encounters an echo of her earlier grief, a kind of double grief. Here her dog has become a kind of symbol of her husband, its death reminds her of his death, bringing back her sense of loss and wedding it to the death of the dog.
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One of the greatest of human capacities lies in our ability to generate symbols, to take certain objects and fill them with many layers of meaning. To do this is to pour ourselves and our relationships into things which is why, for example, we often speak of something as possessing 'sentimental meaning'. We mean that it reminds us of people and events, in fact it reminds us of our relationships. More than that, it helps us keep alive the memories of those relationships. The death of pets is powerful precisely because of their symbolic significance. To children, for example, the death of a pet may involve a sense of grief, as above, but it can also carry a variety of other meanings. It can, for example, be an introduction to dead things. Children are often interested in dead things, pondering how they differ from things that are alive. It is one of the most basic of human ways of looking at the world and the things in it. Here curiosity and grief merge in a way that may well be absent for much older people though the human ability to distinguish between living and dead things is probably connected with the sense of the fear of the dead, since inertness is a very strange human ability. People are characterized by movement, corpses are still.
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Dog and cat deaths:
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Our response to pet death has become particularly marked over the last decade or so by the tremendous growth in pet cemeteries and pet crematoria. Except for deeply rural areas there are now few places that are not within reach of such a facility. About ten years ago I was involved in a study of pet death along with Laura and Martyn Lee who published a book Absent Friend: Coping with the loss of a treasured pet. In a survey involving keen pet owners we found that 36% of dog owners and 25% of those owning cats had engaged in some sort of animal funeral, with cremation being most common with 34% of their dogs and 22% of their cats being cremated. About a third of these pet owners had the ashes returned to them. This reflects the increasing British practice of taking the cremated remains of one's human relatives and placing them in locations of personal significance. In a further survey we asked pet owners if they thought their pets had souls, and 77% said they did, but that did not mean that they also believed their pets had 'eternal life'. To speak of our pets having souls seem to indicate that we see them as having some personality and a kind of 'depth' to them.
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Being able to cremate pets is, itself, particularly useful for many urban dwellers precisely because we can take the ashes and treat them in ways that reflect that depth and the relationship we had with them. It is easier to place ashes in a flower bed than the corpse of a dog. Similarly, a small number of people, those with very deep and special attachments to their pets have expressed the wish to have the pet's ashes placed in with their own, once they have died and been cremated. They can, in that sense, be together after death. As long ago as 1991 The Cambridge Pet Crematorium and Cemetery featured in a television documentary and story in the Radio Times (April 27th 1991). It showed pet owners watching the cremation of their pets and then taking away the remains in small boxes, all was respectfully and very humanly done, almost with a degree of pastoral care and attention on the part of the proprietor. A different kind of service is, apparently, available in Japan where a Tokyo company owns a mobile crematorium that will come to someone's house and cremate the dead pet.
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In our own survey of pet owners nearly three quarters felt that some sort of bereavement support was useful when a pet dies and nearly half said they would be prepared to pay for it. More than half, however, said that they did receive some support from other family members, showing something of the way in which the whole family is often involved in the death of pets. Often it is with the death of dogs that most support is felt needed and given, the dog seems to be, in this sense, a more 'social' pet than the cat. But this is also because people take their dogs out for a walk and are likely to meet other people by doing so. Some people have also reported sensing the presence of their dead pets, an experience that is not far removed from the experience of a very large minority of people who report sensing the presence of their dead human relatives sometime after their death. These experiences show just how much pets become part of the identity and memory of their owners in a trend that is likely to grow as more people live alone in a society that is focused more upon televisions and private leisure than upon many open encounters. The death of pets is almost certainly to rise in profile as a cause of grief in ways that cannot be ignored by those of us who may be petless and very busy people.
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