In 2015, Chantal Dumais arrived at her home near Montreal to find her cat’s body on the floor, smeared with blood. Deeply upset, Dumais asked her employer whether she could work from home the next day. When her request was denied — her employer argued that a pet’s death didn’t warrant bereavement time — Dumais filed a complaint with the local labour tribunal. This July, the tribunal announced the final verdict: Only human deaths justify time off to grieve.
University of Colorado, Boulder professor of sociology Leslie Irvine, Ph.D. would disagree. As an expert in the roles of animals in society, she’s well aware that a pet’s death can be as devastating as that of a human. “There are a lot of people who report that grief after the loss of a pet is worse than anything they’ve experienced after the loss of a human family member or friend,” she tells Inverse.
Bereavement time, no matter whose death it’s prompted by, doesn’t make grief go away, but it does give a person time to adjust to the change without having to fulfill normal duties with a smile on their face. “Grief is grief, whether it’s a human or an animal,” she says, noting there’s evidence to suggest “it can be much more devastating when you lose a pet.” That’s likely because the pet-owner dynamic is very different from what you might experience with a human being.
A Sense of Responsibility
It might at first seem counterintuitive to argue that the death of a pet can be more traumatic than the death of a human, but considering what role a human plays in both the life and death of a pet offers a new perspective.
The devastation we feel after the death of a pet, says Irvine, is thought to be due to “the innocence that we attribute to pets and their dependence on us, and other questions of whether we did enough or whether we let them linger too long, or what could we have done, what part did we play in their demise or their happy life? I think there’s a whole set of different issues going on.”
With the exception of children, the old, and the sick, humans aren’t entirely dependent on other humans to survive. Pets, however, are — and so their deaths come with a great sense of responsibility and, often, guilt. “They depend on us for food, to be allowed to go to the bathroom, to get exercise,” says Irvine. “Veterinary care gives us the opportunity to humanely end that life, which is a decision we don’t make — at least yet — for our human friends and family.”
A Shorter Life
Another reason the death of a pet may feel so cataclysmic, says Irvine, is because we may get the sense that the relationship didn’t get to run its course. “Their lives are relatively shorter than human life, and so we feel the loss — that we really didn’t get enough time with them,” she says.
A Physical Loss
Much like a human, a pet occupies physical space in our lives: They have litterboxes, leashes, their favorite sofas, a spot in a sunbeam or at the foot of the bed. For those who live alone, a pet may be the only other living being leaving a physical footprint on our lives — and the visual reminders they leave behind can make grieving especially tough.
“You probably have beds around, bowls around. Anyone who’s lost a pet knows that feeling of looking around for the animal and expecting them to be there,” says Irvine. “Even sleeping, a lot of us are used to sleeping with their animals, and all of a sudden they’re not there. That’s a different experience.”