“Until one has loved an animal a part of one’s soul remains unawakened”
– Anatole France
What is Pet Grief?
Pet grief is a natural process of coping with the emotional and physical loss of a loved pet. Dealing with the loss of a pet is not something that should be ignored. Rather, it should be honored and taken seriously. Taking the time and space that we need to acknowledge our feelings and emotions will allow us to eventually move on in a healthy and meaningful way. It is normal to react to the recent loss of a pet in a variety of ways. Sometimes we may find ourselves in denial, shock, or disbelief regarding the loss of a pet. If not recognized this could lead to depression, anxiety, or isolation.
Guilt is often one of the most common emotions we find ourselves struggling with when we lose a pet. Regardless of how or why we no longer have the pet, we often begin to feel guilty for all the ways we treated or mistreated our pet. Maybe you feel guilty for not taking your dog on enough walks, or long enough walks. Maybe you feel guilty for leaving work too early in the morning, or not getting home early enough to play with your pet. Maybe you feel like you didn’t spoil your pet enough, or that you spoiled your pet too much. No matter what, guilt is a normal sentiment that we find ourselves struggling with.
What to do…
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, there are six things that you can do to cope with the loss of a pet:
Acknowledge the reality of the death
When we can live in the present and recognize that we are now without our pet companion, it will benefit the long term process of moving forward. According to the AVMA, “Just as it took time to build the relationship with your pet, it will take time to get used to him or her not being there”.
Move toward the pain of the loss
Respecting your emotions and accepting your feelings of grief is not only a necessary step, but a healthy step towards processing the loss and being able to move forward.
Continue your relationship through memories
Giving yourself the chance to honor your special memories with your pet is an important way to let yourself smile and cry and therefore celebrate your pet. Remembering both happy and sad times is healthy. Looking at photos and videos is a wonderful way to spend time down memory lane.
Adjust your self-identity
During your time as a pet-owner, you, along with others, may have viewed you as such. Separating yourself from this title may be a sad reality, but it is an essential step. Because owning a pet requires a lot of time and care, we get used to the daily routine and rituals required to give our pets a good life. Once our pet is gone, these routine practices are no longer part of our life. It becomes important for us to not only recognize this, but to also adjust to our new lives and routines.
Search for meaning
Finding and understanding the meaning of our pets in our lives is important. Trying to understand why our pets were so important to us may seem simple on the surface, but it can be helpful to dig deeper to try to understand why caring for an animal is so important to us.
Receive support from others
Surrounding yourself by others who have experienced pet grief can be comforting. The open ears and advice from others can be crucial to healing. If you don’t have the support or means to reach out to those close to you about pet grief, contact a professional to help guide you through sorting out your emotions. Seeking professional help can provide a healthy and meaningful way to heal, whether or not you have personal support.
Everyone is Different
We all deal with grief differently, especially when it comes to the loss of a pet. Individual members within the same family can have disimilar experiences with their emotions when it comes to the loss.
You, and only you, know yourself and your ways of coping. Try not to judge others for their ways of dealing with the same loss. Finding ways to cope that you feel comfortable with during your healing process is the only one that you can control. Whether your support comes from other family members, friends, or professionals, they are all supportive ways of moving forward.
Losing a family pet can be devastating for a child, especially if they have grown up always having the pet in the home. Explaining why a pet is no longer in the home can be confusing for the child, and very difficult for parents to navigate the right way to approach. Regardless of age, it is important for the children to be explained the reality that the pet is no longer there as a way to find understanding and closure.
For seniors, loss is a common theme in the later stages of life. Pets provide consistent routine and love for elder individuals. Even though most seniors are familiar with loss, it does not make it any easier. Support from those nearby is important.
For those households who have other pets in the home, it can be very difficult for those animals to understand the departure of a fellow animal. For owners, watching other pets in the home be without their partners can be very difficult to watch. Owners are often dealing with their own sadnesses, the added guilt of losing the pet can be magnified when they see their other pets depressed. Staying present and giving your other household pet extra love and attention can only help everyone.
Remembering & Moving Forward
After you have acknowledged and honored your pet, it is important to honor yourself, your strength and your ability to move forward. Being grateful for your time together, and not dwelling on the loss, is an essential step to move on with your life. Once you have given yourself time to grieve, whether that takes days, weeks, or months, you should hopefully be able to find acceptance and peace.