A Pet's Death Can Hurt MoreThan Losing a Fellow Human
Dyani Sabin 戴妮·萨宾
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 changed over the last century. “It's not surprising to me that we feel such grief over the loss of a pet， because in this country at least they are increasingly considered family members，” says Leslie Irvine， a sociologist at the University of Colorado-Boulder.
Pets become family members because they actively shape how we live. “A lot of people who have pets wake up at a certain time， not because of any alarm clock or any need of their own but because their dog needs a walk，” says Irvine.
And it isn't just a daily ritual that makes pets familial. We form attachments to animals in the same way that we form attachments to people， says Cori Bussolari， a psychologist at the University of San Francisco. She points to a study in Science from 2015 that found when people gazed into a dog's eyes， both the person and the dog had increased levels of oxytocin. Oxytocin， sometimes called the love hormone， regulates social interactions. It's released when humans stare into each other's eyes， and when parents look at their newborn children. “I'm sure if you did the study with other animals it would be the same，” Bussolari says.
I already imagine losing my puppy will be harder than burying my gerbils， but I also didn't stare into my gerbils' eyes quite as much. No matter the species，our bonds with our pets are unlike our other relationships. For one， Bussolari says， they're entirely dependent on us. For another， Irvine says， “we idealize animals， especially dogs. We create them as these almost angelic characters， so we have this idea of unconditional love for us.” When they die， she explains， it almost seems like a violation of this mythos we've built around them.
On a personal level， the death of a pet is often a person's first exposure to the loss of a close relationship， says Thomas Wrobel， a psychologist at the University of Michigan-Flint. Human death has been relatively sanitized， he explains. We have an industry for funerals and cremations， and you don't typically have to deal with a dead body yourself. “With pets it's a lot more in your face，” says Wrobel. “Unless you do the cremation option， you've got this dead dog you have to deal with， which is a lot more intimate experience of the death.”
With pets， you also have to decide if you are going to euthanize， and when. In a study of 305 pet owners，Bussolari found that almost seventy percent chose to euthanize their pet. It's often medically necessary—the kindest thing to do for a dying animal—but the decision can wrack the owner with guilt.
When you lose a person， there are rituals—the funeral， the memorial—and it's acceptable to take time off work and talk about your loss. “What people grieving the loss of a pet don't realize the first time they lose a pet is the strength of the grief and how long it lasts，” says Wendy Packman， a psychologist at Palo Alto University. “So it surprises the griever， and it really surprises the people who aren't sympathetic to pet loss.”Although Packman has found that the depth and length of grief is similar to how we grieve people， this social stigma causes it to feel more painful.