Wellbeing, Mental Health and Pet Bereavement: A Personal View

It’s just over a month since London Higher hosted our Wellbeing and Mental Health in London’s universities event.  It was timed to take place on World Mental Health Day 2018, and proved an extremely successful gathering with various action points that we are taking forward.

Since the event interest in this agenda continues to grow.   Speeches, articles and announcements continue apace in the higher education (HE) sector, as elsewhere. For example, Joy Carter, Chair of Guild HE, wrote this useful piece about wellbeing in small and specialist institutions Additionally, the Office for Students has opened a funding challenge to HE providers entitled ‘Achieving a step change in mental health for all students’. London Higher, in conjunction with the University of Westminster and 11 other HEIs plus 3 partners, has submitted an Expression of Interest to this. Watch the space for further updates.

Meantime, I have blogged more than once about my personal journey. I stress again that I speak only from my own experiences, and also that I count myself as being very fortunate in a great many ways.   But, as it is in my heart and mind, I have at this point something important if not mainstream to add into the mix that could affect HE students and staff alike – indeed anyone of any age, from any background and at any time.  Namely the impact of losing a family pet on wellbeing and mental health.

Around the time I spoke at the London Higher event my beloved family dog, Joey, died. Or, to be accurate, I took the agonising decision to have him euthanised.  On the selected day I was due to be working from home anyway and so my non-appearance in the office was (thankfully) scheduled.  In consultation with my vet, who knew Joey and me well, the choice had been made 6 days earlier.  With the help of (very strong) painkillers I took him home not least so that my adult children could say their goodbyes.  I tried to make the most of those 6 days – but I confess that it was like living inside a ticking clock of doom.

He died with me lying next to him and with his head on my lap, slipping away as the drug took effect. It was just as painful for me as I had anticipated and I was in floods of tears afterwards. The vet shed a tear as well, I might add.

I had expected to be in bits that day. But what I hadn’t anticipated was how down I would be feeling a month later. I keep thinking about the decision. How much longer might he have had a relatively ok quality of life on those painkillers? And, I find myself rerunning the events of that last morning. Even though I live with my learning disabled adult son and two cats, the house seems empty.  My days at home have less of a focus. A big presence is missing from my life. Frequently I think about things we had done together and places we frequented – and when I do so I seem more likely to feel tearful than anything else. I have scattered his ashes in three out of the four places I had identified – talking to him as if he were with me whilst doing it.  The bottom line is that I feel lonely a lot of the time – and depressed.

I have not taken time off work nor sought medication. I have done all the things at home and at work that I had planned to do.  I note that I have not been talking about my grief at work, or even much to the family.  My colleagues are aware that my dog has died but are not aware of the agony I continue to feel.  In my mind I have lost another member of my immediate family.  No way was Joey ‘just a dog’.

Two questions I have are, first, why has it affected me this much for so long? And, why is pet bereavement and its possible (if not likely) impact not something that seems to surface in any public (let alone HE) forum?  Albeit we know that owning a pet can benefit mental health. Many people, and I have been one, find that regularly walking a dog for instance boosts wellbeing (mental and physical), and also gives structure to the day.  For pet owners who are studying or who work at a university or HE college things are no different.

I’m not sure of the answers to my questions.  Using various techniques I have picked up over the years I am navigating through my current low and I am know things will work out sooner or later.  Albeit that I can’t pursue one of my choice wellbeing techniques – going out for a walk with the dog.  Walking alone is not the same.  I will find and bring another dog (a rescue dog as Joey was) into my life and my home.  But not yet whilst the sense of loss is so raw.

In the meantime, please let’s remember that for an awful lot of people losing a much loved pet means real grief – and all that goes with it.  It’s just that at the moment it’s not the ‘done thing’ to be open about or recognise it.  In terms of the workplace some employers may count pets as dependants when it comes to bereavement – but my guess is only a minority do.  I confess I hadn’t thought about this before – but now I plan to ensure London Higher will recognise a family pet as a dependant.  All employers will have a broader compassionate or special leave policy though; and I would encourage anyone who needs it to ask for this support.  It goes without saying for the HE sector that students (of any age) may well need support too – even if it is just someone to talk with.  Losing a family pet is the absolute pits – we need to acknowledge the affect it can have.

In memory of my special dog, Joey – always in my heart.

With heartfelt thanks to Rachel M and the team at Vale Vets and Vale Vets Rehab whose care for his arthritis gave Joey added years – and who were there to support us both at the very end.


Two organisations that can help: