7 March 2024

Pets are part of the family, so why is there still so much stigma about grieving their loss?

| Keeli Royle
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Pet grief and loss counsellor and vet nurse Melinda McKeown and her horse Zulu.

Pet grief and loss counsellor and vet nurse Melinda McKeown and her horse Zulu. Photo: Keeli Royle.

An Illawarra counsellor and vet nurse is hoping to normalise grief around the loss of a pet and help people better cope with the heartbreaking decisions imposed upon them as their beloved animal reaches the end of its life.

Melinda McKeown had already worked as a counsellor for more than a decade helping people manage difficult times and their mental health when she decided to also pursue a career to incorporate her love for animals through veterinary nursing.

For years she has supported people and their pets at Unanderra Vet Clinic but found, despite the changing approaches and attitudes towards animals, when it came to loss many would still sweep their sadness under the rug.

“There’s still that element of embarrassment,” Melinda said. “People would say ‘I’m so sorry, I feel silly for crying’.

“I just found that it was such a disenfranchised grief.”

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Because of this stigma, many who were struggling would suffer in silence and not seek support which could have helped them better manage or understand their emotions.

“When you’ve got depression, anxiety, OCD, any of your common mental health issues, it is a normal thing to say ‘I think I might go see a counsellor and get some help’ and it’s a normal thing for other people to say, ‘Do you think you could use the help of a counsellor?’

“When it comes to pet loss, people don’t think that’s a normal next step.

“But what people are actually feeling is an intense grief just the same as if they had lost a family member or friend.

Melinda with two puppies.

Melinda wants to normalise grief around pet loss and encourage people to seek support. Photo: Supplied.

Melinda said that pet loss could be more complicated, with owners often bearing the burden of deciding when it was time to say goodbye.

“I also found that I do a lot of my counselling for pet grief and loss before they die … it’s that anticipatory grief,” she said.

“Then after the death there’s all the questions – Did I do enough? Did I keep them around for longer than I should have? Was I selfish?”

“So you’ve got the guilt, the denial, there’s a lot of those emotions that people go through.”

This can be exacerbated by a lack of empathy or understanding from important support systems like family and friends.

“People would say things to them like, ‘It’s just a dog, you can get another one’ and you wouldn’t dream of saying that to someone who had lost their partner,” Melinda said.

“Grief is grief and loss is loss – it’s not any less heartbreaking or devastating because it’s a pet.”

She said without validation and coping mechanisms, the impacts could last many years.

“It can morph into depression or it can morph into not really wanting to go places maybe where there’s other dogs, so can lead to avoidance behaviour,” Melinda said.

“It can also lead to just that fear of expressing and being able to be open and honest about death.”

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Melinda hopes that by starting conversations early and normalising these emotions around loss it will encourage people to seek help and better prepare for when it’s time to let their pets go.

“We live in a society now where dogs and cats are so included with everything we do – they are our family members, they sleep inside, they’ve got jackets in winter, we take them to the beach, we take them out with our kids, they are our family members,” Melinda said.

“You’ve got to get this right; you don’t get a second chance at saying goodbye.”

To find out more or to find support email [email protected] or call her on 0414 559 707.

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