Losing a loved family member can fill us with grief. Having a pet around can help you cope with that loss. Here house call doctor Dr Ryan Harvey tells us how pets help, illustrated by Emma Brooke’s relationship with her dog Marshall. This is their story…

Emma & Marshall
It is a well-known fact that Grandmothers and Granddaughters have a very special bond and my relationship with my Grandmother was no different.
This was a woman who was practically my second mum, she was a huge part of my life, she was my Gram.

We lived in a very small town in North West NSW and it’s hard to remember a day that I wasn’t at her house. We would eat, garden, watch her favourite soap opera and she would teach me to play piano. Gram was a talented pianist who taught herself to play by ear. I used to love going to church with her on the weekends just to sing along to her playing the hymns.
I would join in her Country Women’s Association line dancing class and follow her to the Senior Citizen’s Club where we would play cards and eat scones. In effect, I was her shadow.

Gram passed away at the age of 79 after a battle with dementia, I was overcome by grief and didn’t really know how to handle the situation.
Everyone’s grandparents pass on eventually. They have lived full lives, they aren’t in pain anymore and you are not supposed to dwell on it. But I did.

Enter Marshall…
A handsome black English Staffordshire Bull Terrier with more love to give than anyone could imagine. Marshall provided the unconditional love and support that I needed while I was dealing with this loss and he needed me too.

Marshall was the reason I got out of the house and went for walks, I made sure I went to the grocery store because I didn’t want him to go hungry. Staffy’s are notorious escape artists when they are bored so I made an effort to take him places where he could socialise, discover new smells and have some doggy fun.

Marshall is a big love bug and he was more than happy to cuddle with me and keep me company when all I wanted to do was binge watch Netflix. His smile brightened my day every time I saw it, and still does.

I didn’t know it at the time but looking back, I’m not sure how I would have coped without him. I used to believe that dogs simply had a magical ability to heal people but I have come to learn that there is some science behind it.

Dr Ryan explains the benefits of pets
Dr Ryan Harvey from House Call Doctor agrees with the many health benefits of having a pet and their ability to help with the grieving process.
“Owning a pet can have profound physical and mental benefits during a mourning period,” says Dr Harvey.

Dr Harvey suggests the following top 5 benefits:

  1. Mood enhancement
    “Having pets around, playing and regularly exercising with them increases serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine,” says Dr Harvey.
    “These are commonly known as the happy, loving and calming hormones. Higher levels of these hormones increase general mental well-being.”

2. Staves off depression
“Pets provide limitless companionship which wards off loneliness and depression. They are also welcome distractions while grieving, giving people a sense of purpose.”

  1. Healthy routine
    Pets need a regular exercise and feeding schedule to stay balanced and calm, the same works for humans too.
    “Having a solid routine increases productivity. You will be able to check more things off your to do list which leaves more time for rest,” says Dr Harvey.
    “Routines can also assist in creating a better sleep pattern which is pivotal in maintaining mental and physical health.”

4. Reduce anxiety
“Touch and movement are two sensory stress relief techniques which lower blood pressure and reduce anxiety,” says Dr Harvey. Petting an animal is a good way to stay calm and relaxed.

  1. Socialising
    Getting out and about with your pet can keep you connected. There is a higher likelihood of human interaction on outings with a pet, even if it is just saying hello to a neighbour.
    “Having a pet can assist with a topic of conversation if you are feeling anxious and are unsure what to talk about,” says Dr Harvey.

Marshall continues to help
During my time of grief Marshall helped in all five ways Dr Harvey mentioned above. Whether I recognised it at the time or not, Marshall helped me through one of the most challenging periods of my life.
Spending time with him now reminds me of my beautiful Gram and I feel honoured to be a part of his little life every day.

More reading
Pet loss grief
Pets no longer with us – a Pinterest board to honour your pet’s memory