Anyone who is a pet owner and considers their pet to be a family member and close friend knows how heartbreaking it can be when our beloved companion dies. The bond we establish with our pets can leave many of us feeling an intense sense of loss and sorrow that is very much the same as losing an immediate family member. There are some important things that every pet owner needs to know if they have just experienced the loss of a pet, or facing hard choices one may face with the expected loss of a pet.
Experiencing grief over the death of a pet is normal and natural, so don’t feel embarrassed or ashamed to grieve over your pet as you would grieve over a person. The relationship pet owners have with their pets is significant. Some pet owners have raised their dog or cat since they were a pup or kitten, and it is only natural to feel as though we are not just a pet owner, but also a parent that has nurtured and bonded to a pet. Pet‘s have personality and intelligence, and provide a constant source of unconditional love and acceptance, which is a profound need in living a healthy and meaningful life. There may be people that “don’t get” the animal-human bond, and won’t understand the pain you pain. Your feelings are valid, and you are not alone.
2. Understand What Grief Can Mean for You
There is no right or wrong way to grieve over the loss of a loved one because people experience grief in their own way. People tend to experience the loss of a pet the same as they would a person, which can involve the 5 stages of grief and loss that include: denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance.
The loss of a pet can be a surreal experience as you find yourself going through your daily routines and finding it hard to accept that your pet is really gone. From coming home to work with them greeting you at the door, to taking them for a walk, it’s hard to imagine that them not being there. Depression is tricky emotion because it’s a natural response to grief, but can also result in being unable to cope with your feelings. Severe depression that is ongoing can feel draining and turn into you dwelling on your sorrow rather than processing and working through it gradually.
Grief can involve feeling a sense of guilt if you had to euthanize your pet, or feeling responsible for them dying, which could make it very difficult to work through your grief. Pet owners may also feel anger at themselves or others if their pet was killed untimely by being hit by a car or falling ill. Anger is also a natural emotion, but needs to be tended to if it becomes so intense that it keeps you from working through your grief.
3. Process Your Grief
Pet owners can fall into the trap of hiding their feelings in order to appear strong and calm for the benefit of others, or to avoid feeling judged or ashamed for feeling vulnerable about the loss. Once you have begun to acknowledge what you are feeling, find a way to express it. Expressing what we feel in the midst of our sorrow can include crying by ourselves and with others. What can be very helpful in the grieving process is finding what helps you the most. Remembering happy memories with your pet and sharing stories with family can help you and others understand how much your pets mean to people.
Expression emotions and memories through stories, reading poems such as the rainbow bridge for pets, or writing a thank you letters to your pet can help you and children in the grief process. Changing your daily routine to fill in the time you and the family would’ve spent with your pet can help in accepting the loss and moving on. Having a memorial at home with the family such as a photo of you and your pet, or having keepsakes such as their collar can help preserve their memory while acknowledging them being gone.
4. Help Your Children Learn About Grief
Children are never too young or old to grieve over the loss of a pet. Discussing the loss of a pet with the entire family gives everyone a chance to learn about death, remember their pet fondly, and work through grief at their own pace. Being honest with them about the loss of a pet may be the first time they will learn what death is, and will give you an opportunity to talk to them about fears or misperceptions that they may have about death. If you tell them that their pet was “put to sleep,” then make sure that they understand the difference between ordinary sleep and death to avoid confusion and possible fear about sleeping. You can comfort them by telling them that their pet is free of pain, but avoid telling them that their pet ran or went away because they may believe that they may come back. Children need time to work through grief and loss before adopting a new pet. It’s better for children and all pet owners to adopt a new pet when they are ready to move on and build a new relationship after a period of grieving the loss.
Is There Someone Who Can Help Me With This?
The most important step you can take is to be honest about your feelings. Don’t deny your pain, or your feelings of anger and guilt. Only by examining and coming to terms with your feelings can you begin to work through them. Working through feelings of loss with another person is one of healthiest ways to handle it.
Often we turn to our family and friends over the loss of our pets, as often they will understand what you’re going through and even grieve with you. If you don’t have family or friends who you can go to for support, or if you need more help working through your grief, then find a support group or therapist for grief counseling.