Grieving the Loss of a Pet

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According to the Humane Society of the United States there are over 78.2 million dogs and 86.4 million cats that are living as part of a human family, and there are over 2-3 million cats and dogs who are adopted each year.   Adoptions are only one indicator of the commitment individuals have placed on adding a pet to their families; the increase in rescues, media documentaries on animals, and a growing “pet friendly” society are others.  So, what does this mean?  For many people a pet is not “just a dog” or “just a cat”; pets are beloved members of the family and, when they die, you feel significant, even traumatic loss.

It is important to note that grieving is a personal and highly individual experience.  Some people experience grief in stages such as denial, anger, guilt, depression, and ultimately acceptance; others find grief as more cyclical with a series of highs and lows that eventually feel less painful, but can be triggered again with significant events such as anniversaries, birthdays, or with stimuli such as sights or sounds.  Three important factors to consider during this grieving process are:

  • The grieving process happens gradually, it cannot be forced or hurried, and there is no “normal” timetable for grieving.
  • Feeling sad, frightened, or lonely is a normal reaction
  • Trying to ignore your pain, or keep it from surfacing only prolongs the grieving process

In addition to embracing this process as a natural set of emotions and thoughts, here are some additional tips for coping with this significant event.

Coping with Grief of the Loss of a Pet

  • Don’t let anyone tell you how to feel.  Your grief is your own, and no one can tell you when it is time to “move on” or “get over it.”  Let yourself feel without embarrassment or judgment; it’s okay to be angry, to cry or not to cry, to laugh or find moments of joy.
  • Reach out to others who have lost pets.  Check online message boards, pet loss hotlines, and pet loss support groups.  If your family and friends are understanding and supportive, “Bravo!”  If not, find others who understand the depth of this loss.
  • Rituals can help healing.  When we lose a human member of our family we have traditions to help us say goodbye; similar traditions can be had with your pet.  Think about a memorial service, burial, or spreading of ashes; do what feels right for you to honor the passing of your pet.
  • Create a legacy.  Preparing a memorial, planting a tree in memory of your pet, making a donation in your pet’s name are examples of how we can celebrate the life and contribution of our pet to our life.
  • Look after yourself.  The stress of losing a pet can quickly deplete your energy and emotional reserves.  Looking after your physical and emotional needs will help you get through this time.  Depression can be evident with changes in eating habits, sleep patterns, energy levels, extended periods of crying, and isolating oneself from others.  Regular exercise and eating healthy can go a long way to helping you manage these feelings of loss and loneliness.
  • If you have other pets, try to maintain your normal routine.  Surviving pets can also experience loss when a fellow pet dies, or they may become distressed by your sorry.  Maintaining their daily routines, or even increasing exercise and play times can be of benefit to everyone in the family.

Losing a pet can affect different members of your family in different ways.  For seniors the loss may be more profound if they are now left alone without any companion; Encourage activity, staying connected with friends and exploring ways to find new meaning in their life.  For children, this may be their first experience with death, and your first opportunity to teach them about coping with grief and loss.

Tips for Helping Children Cope with the Loss of a Pet

  • Let your child see you express your own grief, and encourage them to share their own grief openly.
  • Involve your child in the dying process if you have chosen euthanasia for your pet; explain why the choice was necessary and allow time for your child to say good-bye.
  • Invite the child to be involved in deciding what kind of “memorial” they would like to have, or what type of mementos they would want to create to honor their pet.  A collage of photos or a plaster paw print is examples that can engage the child in this honoring process.
  • Do not rush out to get the child “a replacement” before they’ve had a chance to grieve.  If rushed, your child may feel disloyal or become confused about an expected timetable for their sadness.  Allow the grieving process to run its own course.

Given the intense bond most of us share with our animals, it is natural to feel devastated by feeling of grief and sadness.  However, the life lesson we all work through is that grief is a normal process with such profound loss, and that working through the myriad of emotions brings us to a place of truly recognizing the love and joy that was mutually shared our pet and its human family.

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