This is not a sentence I expected to ever write: I totally empathize with Miley Cyrus. The singer posted a heart-wrenching missive about her recently deceased dog Floyd to Twitter over the weekend, saying, “I don’t know when the regret and guilt will fade … I don’t know if it ever will.” Cyrus has had a rough go of it since Floyd died in April, reportedly breaking down into tears onstage. And after her emotional Twitter post, it appears she’s still not over it.
In the grand hierarchy of world problems, it might be hard to take Cyrus’s mourning all that seriously, but according to psychological research on pet-bereavement, the world shouldn’t be so quick to judge. Not only can losing a pet hurt as much as losing a loved one, but the grief is complicated by the fact that people feel guilty about being so sad. (I should add that Cyrus’s story struck a personal chord for me: My beloved little cat was recently diagnosed with a fatal heart disease.)
A handful of studies have shown that if an owner is especially attached to their furbaby, the grieving process can be as emotionally fraught as the death of a family member or significant other. And, as Cyrus helps demonstrate, grief over a pet’s death can last longer than outsiders might think it should. In one 2003 paper, researchers asked 174 adults whose cats or dogs had recently died to fill out a survey, checking off which symptoms of grief they were experiencing. Initially, about 85 percent of owners experienced at least one of those symptoms; a year later, more than a fifth reported that they were still grieving in some way.
Feeling the symptoms of grief while, at the same time, being ashamed to fully express them results in what psychologists call “disenfranchised grief,” and this is something that some mental health professionals see as an underaddressed issue in the context of pet-bereavement. In 2012, for example, Texas State University psychologist Millie Cardaro wrote a paper calling for more therapists to recognize that the grief people feel after losing a pet is very real, and that her peers should pay more attention to helping people work through those emotions.
In other words, it’s okay to feel those feels, Miley.