Q. My elderly uncle can't seem to recover from the loss of his dog. Is it normal to grieve for months when a pet dies? When is it time to encourage him to seek mental health help?
A. More than half of American households have pets. These "companion animals" are often considered part of the family. This is especially true of elderly people, who may be lonely after surviving the loss of spouses, family, and friends, and so become extremely attached to their pets.
Not much research has been done about grief that develops after pet loss, but the studies that do exist suggest that the grieving process is similar in some ways to the bereavement that occurs after a close friend or family member dies. Although the grieving period varies, it can go on for weeks or months. One study of people who had lost pets found that one-third of them experienced grief and sadness for at least six months.
It's time to seek help when these emotions and the grieving process become so severe that they interfere with a person's ability to function in daily life. (This principle applies whether the person is mourning the loss of a person or an animal.) In the study I just cited, only a small percentage of people could no longer function because of the loss of their pet.
If your uncle is still getting out of bed in the morning, eating regularly, and otherwise functioning, then he may just need more time and understanding as he navigates the grief process. But if you've noticed that the grief is overwhelming his ability to take care of himself, then it may be time for him to consult a mental health clinician, who can offer advice about how to heal.
— Michael Craig Miller, M.D.
Editor in Chief, Harvard Mental Health Letter
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