Popular Science

A pet’s death can hurt more than losing a fellow human

Social norms are wrecking your grief experience.
beagle lying on carpet

Deciding when to take a suffering pet to be put down can leave owner's with a lot of guilt.

The perfect coffin for a gerbil is a Celestial Seasonings tea box. With the tea bags removed, the white wax-paper bag inside is the ideal size funeral shroud for a tiny body. This unfortunate factoid, like much of the information about how to dispose of a beloved pet’s body, comes from personal experience. I buried four gerbils in my backyard as a child, complete with incense on their graves and a few words.

As an adult with a puppy well on his way to being over 60 pounds, I hadn’t given much consideration to how I’d deal with other pet deaths until a friend asked me, “this is a terrible question, but what do you do when he dies?”

I dug into the question, and as I did I found that I wasn’t alone in wondering—but that there isn’t a great answer.

The experts I talked to emphasized that our relationship to pet loss has, a sociologist at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Sixty-eight percent of Americans own a pet, an increase of twelve percent since started in the 1988, when it was already booming. Losing a beloved animal friend is made harder by the relative novelty of the experience, often being a person’s first experience with a close death, and by it being one of the few times most people chose euthanasia to end a life. And depending on the relationship, the loss of a pet can be more traumatic than the grief we feel after the death of family and friends. In part, this is because pets share some of our most intimate relationships—we see them every day, they depend on us, we adjust our lives around their needs—and yet publically grieving their loss is not socially acceptable.

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