Coping With Pet Bereavement
By Danni Peck
Updated December 13, 2018
Reviewer Martha Furman, LPC, CAC
Losing a pet can be equal to or arguably harder than losing a person. That's because pets love you unconditionally, and they always seem so innocent. So it's twice as hard to watch a pet go through a long illness because it appears they have no idea what's going on, and no idea the fate that awaits them. Every pet parent has to do it, and no pet parent wants to: that dreaded car ride to bring our best friend to the vet for the last time, and our friend is completely unaware that we are taking them to their death. Heartbreaking.
Once our pets have left us, it can be incredibly hard to come back home and walk through the door. Their hair is still on the couch and on the carpet. Their toys are still scattered throughout the house, and they may still have food and water in their dishes that they will never enjoy again. If your friend was a cat, you might still have to deal with emptying the litter box of their waste - waste that is still around when they're not. There are so many aspects to the death of a pet that makes it one of the hardest things we may ever have to go through.
Some of us never get over the death of a pet. We cry for them often, and we create ornaments for them to hang in their honor on the Christmas tree every year. Or we dedicate a special lawn ornament or memorial stone to them, or some other such trinket that we can look at daily as a way of ensuring that we always take a moment to stop and remember our friends. In the most extreme cases, some of us turn to taxidermy so that our friends, in a way, can never leave us.
How We Bond With Our Pets
Some people are either insensitive or simply can't understand how we can hurt so badly after the death of a pet. "It's just a dog," they might say. Or, equally hurtful, "you're this upset over a cat? There are millions of them out there. You can get another one." But pet parents understand that just because our pets can't talk doesn't make them any less of a friend than a human being can be.
If anything, animals may make better friends because they're there for us when no one else is, and in ways that no one else can be. They have feelings, and they understand when we're hurting and try to comfort us. How can you not be upset when such a caring and loving soul passes away?
Why It's So Hard To Lose A Pet
For some, pets change our lives in monumental ways. They help us stay active, which keeps us in shape. They help us get out and be more social, which helps our mental state. They give us joy when they do something sweet, and they make us laugh when they do something silly. They often fulfill a woman's mothering instinct by giving her something to care for, and they even save our lives when we're in danger. How do you not form a close bond with an animal when you literally would no longer be alive if it weren't for them? Policemen and women can probably say the same about their K9s.
Those who live alone can get great comfort and joy from having a pet as a companion. And, just the same, it can be twice as hard for these folks when their beloved friends pass away. Losing a pet can also cause his or her owner to feel a deep sense of guilt for a variety of reasons. For one, the owner may have been unable to afford the necessary care to prolong the pet's life. For another, there may have been a way to help the animal that the owner may have been unaware of, such as with a particular kind of medication.
There is also the possibility that a pet can accidentally run out and get hit by a car. His or her owner may take a long time to get over the death of that pet, perhaps may never even get over it. He or she may spend days thinking of all how such an accident could have been prevented:
- What if I didn't open the door so wide?
- What if I was paying closer attention to the open door?
- What if I had a leash on my pet and could have pulled him or her back inside?
- What if I installed that fence I had always talked about getting?
- What if I had let my pet out sooner/later? Perhaps the car wouldn't have been there at that moment.
The reasons to torture oneself can be innumerable, but ultimately it does not bring back our beloved friends. So how do we learn to cope with pet bereavement?
The Grieving Process
The grieving process is the grieving process, no matter whether you are grieving a person or a pet. Everyone grieves in his or her way, and that's okay. Everyone comes to terms with the loss in his or her own time, and some simply never get over it. This is not to say that you will spend every day for the rest of your life crying over your pet, but there is the possibility that years later, a particular smell or memory will trigger your grief, and you could feel that profound sense of loss all over again.
The important thing to remember is that you can't run away from your pain. Trying to ignore it or otherwise repress it will only make it worse down the road. If you allow yourself to feel and express your grief, you will find that you will heal faster than if you had tried to ignore your grief and press on when you weren't ready to do so.
The hardest thing about pet loss, which makes it unique, is the insensitivity of others. Never feel ashamed for grieving the loss of your pet, and don't let anyone make you feel like your loss is insignificant. You have lost a friend, and you have every right to mourn that loss and honor your friend. Don't waste time arguing with those who tell you to "get over it" and "move on with your life." It may be helpful to seek comfort and support from those who are not in your immediate family or social circle, as those closest to us may not share our views when it comes to the loss of a pet.
Coping With The Loss Of Your Pet
It can be helpful after the loss of a pet to reach out to others who have lost pets as well. These folks are sure to "get it" and likely won't be part of the insensitive crowd who simply doesn't understand what a pet can mean to someone. If you don't know of anyone personally, you can always reach out to a pet loss hotline, a pet loss support group, related message boards, or even to a licensed counselor who can lend a shoulder to cry on and help you cope with your feelings if they are impacting your daily routine.
It may also be helpful to do something in your pet's memory. Planting a tree for them or creating a photo album or scrapbook is a great way to celebrate your pet and keep his or her memory alive.
The healthiest thing you can do while you grieve the loss of your pet is to make sure you are taking proper care of yourself. Grieving is an exhausting process, both physically and mentally, and so it is important to ensure that you are replenishing your steadily decreasing reserves. Exercise can release the necessary endorphins to stabilize your mood, and even if the last thing you feel like doing right now is eating, you should maintain a healthy diet to avoid getting sick.
You especially need to tend to your needs if you have children and other pets. For children, it's self-explanatory, but for other pets, they too can suffer distress upon realizing that their companion is no longer around. Plus, pets are intelligent, as you know, and so they can sense when something is not quite right with you either. Help them to worry less by keeping up with their daily schedule, perhaps even increasing the amount of time you play with them or exercise them. This will improve both their overall outlook and yours as well.
Helping Children Cope With The Loss Of A Pet
The loss of a pet may be especially difficult for children because this may be the first time that they may be faced with death. This can make your grieving process twice as difficult because not only are you experiencing grief but now you also have to help your children understand and face that loss as well. They may blame themselves for not being able to help or save their pet, or they may lash out and blame everyone from you to the vet tech who put their pet to sleep.
It may be tempting not to tell the child that their pet has passed away and instead to lie to them, telling them something like the pet ran away. While this may be a temporary fix, this is not a good idea, as it does not save the child's feelings in the long run. The child may spend days, weeks, or even months hoping for and expecting the pet to come back. Further, if and when the truth is discovered, the child will feel angry and betrayed on top of the grief they would have originally felt if they were simply told the truth in the first place.
Helping A Senior Cope With The Loss Of A Pet
Many of us have an elderly relative who has a pet for companionship. But when that pet dies, it may be especially difficult for that relative to cope with the loss, for some reasons:
- They may otherwise live alone and be reminded of the losses they have experienced, as well as their mortality.
- They may be in a fragile state, and so the wracking pain of grief can be especially dangerous to their health.
- They may be unable to get another pet to fill the void, as there is the concern that the pet will outlive them, or that there may come a day where they may be unable to physically or financially care for the pet.
For these reasons, it is especially important that senior pet owners confront the loss immediately and do all they can to regain their sense of purpose. This might mean making friends if they had none before by going to social gatherings, like cards or bingo.
If they are having difficulty coping with the loss, then it is especially important that they seek professional help sooner rather than later. Seniors may even be interested in volunteering at a local animal shelter as a way of being close to animals again without having to worry about no longer being able to carry out the responsibilities of pet ownership.