A Life Worth Grieving

When losing a pet is losing a friend

The woman is in mourning. Her clothes are black. She’s not wearing makeup.

“Before he died, I was so full of energy,” she says. “My friends were amazed how many different things I was able to accomplish in a day. And now I’m exhausted and can’t even bring myself to pick up my son from nursery school. So I leave him there, and his teacher takes him to her home to stay with her for a few nights.”

The woman is a 32-year-old lawyer in Israel. She didn’t feel like speaking to her friends lately, but when a researcher contacted her, she agreed to share her experience.

The pain is still fresh. It’s been less than two weeks since she euthanized her dog.



How do people cope with putting their pet to sleep?

Researchers Lilian Tzivian, Michael Friger, and Talma Kushnir talked to people who had their dogs euthanized. Most of the interviewed were women, all of them were educated, Jewish, nonreligious, and living in cities around Tel Aviv.

The decision to euthanize their dog was painful. It bred dark thoughts. It triggered personal memories of death and – for Israelis whose country was founded, in part, on fear of another Holocaust – collective memories of genocide.

“I felt as if I was a Nazi in Auschwitz,” one woman said.

“I saw him lie in his excretions and it reminded me of my father in the same situation. I didn’t want him to suffer in the same way my father did,” another person admitted.

Reluctant to make that decision, people looked for signs of irreversible decline. When the dog could no longer eat, people knew it was time. The physical symptoms were one thing, but the animal’s perceived happiness was another.

Before making the call, dog owners had to convince themselves their pet was no longer capable of feeling joy.

Once they convinced themselves, they had to say goodbye. Many did something nice for their pets. They cuddled them, massaged them, or fed them ice cream. They washed and groomed them.

“I found a way of coping with the death of relatives, be it a pet or a human being,” a woman said. “What I do is to take care of them, even in very small things. I came to a veterinarian and asked permission to bathe the dog and to cut his nails. And it was not related to the time that remained—the last time I washed his back was four hours before he died. I did it just for me, to know that I did everything I could.”

Some let the vet cremate the body. Others buried it, sometimes by themselves, near their houses – or, in one case, near the sea. Their dog liked the beach.

Despite being nonreligious, four families observed Shiva, the seven-day Jewish mourning period that traditionally follows the burial of a close relative.

To conclude their mourning, one family came up with a ritual.

“Then each one of us did something to release the soul of the dog. We cleaned the dog’s place; threw out his toys— each one of the children and adults according to his ability. Then we lit candles and meditated together— and this is how we were able to continue with our life.”


Photo by Pietro Schellino on Unsplash
Photo by Pietro Schellino on Unsplash

Photo by Pietro Schellino on Unsplash


People grieve pets as if they were human.

But what does “as if” mean, exactly?

We need a philosophically-informed study.

Time to visit Sweden.



Between 2010 and 2012, David Redmalm interviewed 18 pet owners living in Sweden. He selected a variety of humans and animals. Eleven people owned dogs, seven had cats, two kept birds, one was a fish owner, one was a rat owner, and one had snakes and lizards.

All these animals were alive. Their owners weren’t grieving; they were describing pet grief based on general experience.

The pets were present during the interviews. According to the researcher, this allowed people to focus on human-animal bonds and make loss less abstract; more real.

Redmalm analyzed the interviews by taking Judith Butler’s concept of grievability and applying it to non-human life.

What is grievability? What makes a life grievable?

Let’s find out.



Grievability is the condition of a life that is considered worth mourning. Life is grievable when we see it as a life that had been fully lived. The life mattered to others.

When a person who matters dies, the unique relationship you had with them is gone. Something changes indefinitely. You respond to that change in ways you could not foresee – one death leaves you numb, another makes you fall apart, but each testifies to your vulnerability, both physical and emotional. Loss is a reminder that your own flesh is a perishable thing with an unknown expiration date, fragile and finite. It’s also a reminder that you depend on others. They make you what you are.

A grievable life is irreplaceable and its loss is transformative in unpredictable ways. It requires a vulnerable body that mourns another vulnerable body.

This is how we can apply these principles to animal life.



I. What is lost is irreplaceable.

Losing an animal can feel like losing a friend. It can feel like losing someone irreplaceable. 

“You can never replace an individual with another individual, it doesn’t work that way,” said a woman in Sweden who owned four cats and volunteered at a cat shelter.

Some people, like the Israeli woman who, within ten months, lost her husband and two dogs, say they don’t want any more pets.

“I will never adopt someone that I would bury later,” the woman said. “Neither a husband nor a dog.”

Despite grief, some will adopt another animal. They miss their pet and the relationship they forged with them, but they also miss the human-animal bond.

A pet is irreplaceable but you can still replace them.



II. Grief is transformative and unpredictable in its expression.

Pet grief is powerful and can take an unexpected turn. We cannot predict how we will react.

“My daughter has had black-outs since the death of the dog; she can’t go to school, she just keeps looking at the dog’s photos in her cell-phone and cries,” an Israeli mother said.

Lifespans of animals are generally known, and short. Since most people will outlive their pets, the owners can prepare for a life without them. They can plan something nice. Liberating, even. When there’s no animal waiting for them at home, people can travel whenever they want for as long as they want. This makes grief manageable.

Not all pets will be framed as grievable. Some will be lose-able.

Some animals are perceived as less intelligent and more difficult to bond with than others. The fish owner and the snake owner didn’t mourn their pets. As the snake owner explained: “It’s always a loss when an animal passes away, but it’s not the sad kind of loss.”



III. Grief is a bodily experience.

The bereaved in Sweden had similar experiences to the bereaved in Israel. They monitored their pets’ bodies, trying to establish if it was time for them to go. When they heard the cough of their terminally ill cat or the rasping breath of their dying dog, their own bodies responded with cramps and other unpleasant sensations.

Touch and frequent interaction invite empathy and grief. Those owners who didn’t interact with their pets didn’t mourn them. By keeping the animal in a cage, an aquarium, or a terrarium, they kept a boundary between their human family and their non-human pet.

The bereaved didn’t have that kind of boundary. By spending time with their pets, petting them, sharing rooms, gardens, or even couches and beds, people became more sensitive. They could relate to their pet’s near-death state.

But Redmalm also noticed that by searching for signs of death in their animals, people had to emotionally detach themselves and look at their dogs as medical objects. They had to acknowledge them as non-human others who do not have the grasp of language or abstract thought.

They had no choice but to see their pets not as individuals, but as lists of symptoms. 

Photo by Maria João Correia on Unsplash
Photo by Maria João Correia on Unsplash

Photo by Maria João Correia on Unsplash


Pet grief fulfills all three requirements of grievability – but at the same time, it doesn’t.

When talking about their pet’s death, people move back and forth between conflicting notions. They struggle for an adequate human-to-animal balance when describing the loss of someone who was regarded as a person, but was a nonhuman animal. This produces a paradox in which they see pets as both grievable and lose-able.

Accounts of pet grief are ambivalent because they keep falling back on the human/animal divide. People don’t have the words to express how they feel, because all the words they have are meant for humans.

But there is merit in that struggle.

Traditionally, the human/animal divide is a clearly defined hierarchy. It allows humans to exploit the natural world and its non-human life. It’s used to justify killing, enslaving, and berating other people by reducing them to animal status.

When we grieve the death of a non-human animal, the boundaries are blurred, tested, and contested. A horizon of change opens. A possibility for a more livable life appears for us all, human and non-human alike.



People grieve pets as if they were human because the “as if” part is just as real.

In an ideal world, we would not treat bereaved pet owners with reproach or ridicule. They could take a break from work or seek psychological counsel.

Despite progress, acceptance of pet grief is still far on the horizon. That is why the bereaved are very selective about sharing their experiences. They need to be sure they receive the emotional support they deserve.

“I didn’t tell anyone that he died,” an Israeli woman said, “because people who haven’t experienced the death of their dog can’t understand this pain, just as someone who has never loved, can’t understand what love is.”



Adrianna Zabrzewska wrote this based on two articles:

1.      Lilian Tzivian, Michael Friger, and Talma Kushnir, “Grief and Bereavement of Israeli Dog Owners: Exploring Short-Term Phases Pre- and Post-Euthanization.” Death Studies, 38:2, 2014, pp. 109–117, DOI: 10.1080/07481187.2012.738764

“Before he died . . .” – p. 114

“I felt as if . . .” – p. 112

“I saw him . . .” – p. 112

“I found a way of coping . . .” – p. 113

“Then each one of us . . .” – p. 114

“I will never adopt . . .” – p. 115

“My daughter . . .” – p. 112

“I didn’t tell anyone . . .”  – p. 115


Tzivian et al. asked Israeli veterinarians to help them reach persons who lost their dogs. They talked to 69 people total, within two weeks following euthanasia. The article was based on a smaller sample of 29 adults. The median age was 49. The dogs ranged in age from 6 to 18 and all of them lived at their owner’s house since they were 6 months old or younger. Their median age at the time of death was 14.5 years.


2.      David Redmalm. “Pet Grief: When is Non-Human Life Grievable?The Sociological Review, 63, 2015, pp. 19–35, DOI: 10.1111/1467-954X.12226

“You can never replace . . .” – p. 25

“It’s always a loss . . .” – p. 30


Judith Butler explores grievability in:

Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (2009)

Copyright Adrianna Zabrzewska 2021: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND



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