Anyone who was triggered into a bout of racking sobs by last year’s Alternative John Lewis Christmas Advert will sympathise with retail store supervisor Wendy O’Grady, who made the news this week for being signed off from work following the death of Zac, her beloved pet labrador.
For those of you who can’t bear to watch, the seasonal charity ad, titled “Don’t Let Me Go”, tells the story of an elderly man who lives alone with his Staffordshire bull terrier, Bruno. Bruno goes missing, the old man passes away but the end of the video shows their reunion in the afterlife. So far, so schmaltzy – but the homemade advert raised money for several charities supporting the elderly in the UK. The ad illustrates how pets fill the painful social void left by humans: so many elderly people in the UK have only their dog or cat for company, comfort and companionship.
I spoke to a friend about Wendy O’Grady’s bereavement leave and unintentionally provoked an incensed outburst: “What?! That’s ridiculous!! She can’t do that! It makes a mockery of grief! It’s unjustifiable! What about people who lose family members and have to carry on working?” My friend’s voice got louder and higher as he reached the climactic finale of his speech “A chuffing dog?! I can’t get my breath!” If only that last comment had been true, dear reader, because my friend returned to the subject with similar outrage throughout the day.
I can see that at a time when we’re watching unspeakable horror unfold in Afghanistan, refugees from across the world are literally dying to find sanctuary, and families are losing loved ones to Covid, it may seem perverse that some, like Wendy, are distressed enough by the death of a pet to be signed off from work. Haven’t these people got a sense of perspective? What does the life and death of animals matter in the face of such human pain and suffering? I get that. I do. I understand that some may find the value of animal life secondary to humans. See the response of the minister for the armed forces, James Heappey, to Pen Farthing’s attempts to evacuate 200 rescue dogs and cats from Afghanistan, for an example.
I also understand that for some, animals aren’t just best friends, they’re family. They offer emotional essentials to humans like love and affection – basics that can be hard to come by, even from other humans.
While grief for pets is trivialised, the loss of an animal that has loved and comforted you through the darkest of times can be a staggering blow.
The unconditional love and devotion given by dogs makes their loss hit harder for some owners even than the passing of some family members, especially for those who live alone and have lived with their pet as sole companion through lockdown.
For those who would judge pet owners like Wendy, who’ve needed time off from work to process their grief, perhaps we should remember that there’s no metric for emotion. Pets offer so much to their humans. They can alleviate the pain of loneliness and loss. They can teach us how to love and trust again after experiencing abuse. Making light of the heartache of pet loss, or comparing unfavourably to the raft of worse, more appalling, more horrific forms of human suffering, ignores the very real emotional distress that can be left in the wake of the passing of a much-loved pet.
I can understand why Wendy needed a couple of weeks to recover from losing her dog - so would I.