A woman was fired for missing work when her beloved dog died. Now, a petition calling on UK workplaces to offer pet bereavement leave is going viral. It’s a change we desperately need, says writer Amy Lavelle.
This is the situation that 18-year-old Emma McNulty found herself in, after allegedly losing her job when she missed a shift due to the death of a beloved family member. The teenager said she was fired from her part-time job in a sandwich shop after she was unable to make her shift or find a replacement, due to suffering from grief.
However, that member of her family wasn’t a person: it was her 14-year-old dog, Millie
Describing her pet as her “best friend”, McNulty said her death was akin to “losing a member of the family”. She has since launched a change.org petition calling on employers to recognise pet bereavement as being as devastating as losing a human family member.
The story has sparked intense debate over whether bereavement leave should be extended to include pets, as well as people. While some have derided the idea, as someone who has lost both, I am fully behind it. To say otherwise is to do a disservice to the relationships we have with our pets.
We are a nation of animal lovers. According to figures from The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA), 49% of UK adults own a dog while 25% of us are cat owners. Meanwhile, a study released last year showed that we are more empathetic to dogs than we are to other adult humans. “Subjects did not view their dogs as animals, but rather as ‘fur babies,’ or family members alongside human children,” the researchers concluded. And how many of us have declared we prefer animals to people at some point in our lives?
I am one of them. My own dog Hunny was a family pet we’d had since I was 12, so I grew up with her. When I had my heart broken for the first time, I joked that she had become my emotional support animal, but in a way, she had. Hunny seemed able to sense my upset and would come and lie quietly by me, or rest her head on my lap if I was crying, offering love and comfort when I needed her, without asking anything in return.
When Hunny died at the age of 14, her death felt like I’d lost a family member. There wasn’t any question of whether I would work the next day: I simply couldn’t. I was crying so much that my computer screen was reduced to a vague, watery blur. In fact, I spent much of the next few days frantically trying to stave off tears. It was a week before I risked wearing mascara again. To some, that might sound extreme, but I know that I’m not alone. Many friends and family members have echoed my experiences when they lost their own animals. It can be devastating.
The animal charity Blue Cross is aware of how much people can struggle to cope when a pet dies, and has been running a popular support service for 25 years. Over 12,000 people a year get in touch. As Diane James, who works as a Pet Bereavement Support Service Manager for the charity, tells Stylist: “The despair, grief and sadness owners feel when their pet dies can be as much as, or even more than, when they lose a human member of the family, so should never be taken lightly.”
Psychologist Mamta Saha explains that this is because of the strong emotional connection we have with our animals. They make us feel “recognised and valued” and we see that as being reciprocated in their actions. “We form a connection with that pet and that pet gives us something that warms our heart and connects with us emotionally,” she tells Stylist. “It gives us some sort of emotional sense of security, connection and warmth.”
When we lose a pet, she says, “the person feels it in their core”.
A pet might not be a person and when I have lost family members, the grieving process has been very different – of course it has. But it also didn’t make losing an animal any less painful, so why do we insist on comparing them?
There was an outpouring of grief and love on Instagram recently, when Justin Theroux shared images of a funeral held for the beloved dog, Dolly, that he shared with his ex-wife Jennifer Aniston. Just one look at any of the 6,000 comments left on the images is enough to prove that we should accept the pain of any loss and have compassion for that, rather than insisting on a ranking system to decide what deaths are worth our time and emotion.
The debate also ignores all those whose main relationships aren’t with people at all, but with their pets: often the same people that are most alone, whether that’s by choice or otherwise, who can go for days without human contact. We know that loneliness is a huge issue in our society today and sometimes, pets can become stand-ins in place of human relationships. So why are we so quick to denigrate that? What to one person might be ‘only a pet’ can be to someone else a best friend, a support system, or the only love they have in their life. To say that doesn’t count is, frankly, insulting.
This story is emblematic of how bad we are as a society at coping with grief. We don’t like to talk about death and when it happens, we’re not equipped to cope.
When a story like this comes along, it’s easier to mock it than it is to address the very real upset that is at the heart of it. Because the relationships we have with animals can be rich, complex and fulfilling — sometimes, even more so than the ones we have with other humans.
Unfortunately, at the moment, the law doesn’t reflect this, at least when it comes to bereavement leave. While we have the right to take time off in an emergency dealing with a dependant, this doesn’t apply to animals. Compassionate leave, meanwhile, comes at the discretion of the employer.
Emma McNulty is working to change that. As she writes on her petition page, “a family pet… has just as much importance as a human family member. It’s time companies acknowledged this and give people the time they need to grieve with no worry of losing their job (sic).”
Her petition already has 11,182 signatures (at the time of writing). Mine is one of them - will you be joining us?
Images: Unsplash, courtesy of author