Pet Bereavement: Coping With The Loss Of A Pet

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated January 30, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Losing a pet can cause grief, difficult emotions, and distress, like any loss. Just as you might bond with other humans, you may form profound connections with your pets, and they often become a part of your everyday life. The love from a pet often feels unconditional and unwavering, and their innocence can make the loss difficult to bear. 

Coping with the intense grief and sadness that can follow the loss of a pet may feel challenging. Though you may never forget losing your beloved furry friend, there are ways you can manage your emotions during the bereavement process. 

Losing A Pet Can Take A Toll On Your Mental Health

How To Cope With The Loss Of Your Pet 

Everyone may cope with loss in different ways. The grieving process may take longer for some than others, but grief may not be linear. 

Reach Out For Support 

You might start your recovery by reaching out to others who have also lost pets. These individuals may understand the feelings and avoid invalidating your experience. If you don't know anyone personally, consider reaching out to a pet loss hotline, support group, or related message board. A licensed counselor may also offer support and help you cope with your feelings if they impact your daily routine. 

Do An Activity In Your Pet's Memory 

It may be helpful to try an activity or create an item in your pet's memory. Planting a tree for them or creating a photo album or scrapbook could be a powerful way to celebrate your pet and keep their memory alive. If they enjoyed a particular treat, toy, or place, consider utilizing it in your memorial. 

Some individuals plan a funeral or memorial in their pet's name and invite those closest to them. During the ceremony, you could read aspects you loved about having them in your life and bury them with one of their favorite items if you opted out of cremation.

Practice Self-Care 

While you grieve the loss of your pet, practice healthy self-care. Grief can be exhausting physically and mentally, so ensure you are replenishing your reserves. Exercise can release the necessary endorphins to stabilize your mood, and even if the last thing you feel like doing is eating, make an effort to maintain a healthy diet to give your immune system a boost.

If you have children and other pets relying on you for care, caring for yourself can support you in caring for them. Your children and other pets may also experience grief upon realizing their furry companion is no longer around. Your pets may also want to comfort you during this time. Spend time with them to feel loved and remember you are not alone. 

Helping Children Cope With The Loss Of A Pet

The loss of a pet may be challenging for children because it could be the first time they have faced the death of a loved one. You may feel that this increases your grief, as you are experiencing your grief and helping your children understand and face loss simultaneously. They may blame themselves for not being able to help or save their pet, or they may lash out and blame you or the vet tech who put their pet to sleep.

It may feel tempting to tell your child that their pet has run away or has a new home. While this may be a temporary fix, your child could experience difficulties. They may spend weeks, months, or years hoping for and expecting the pet to return. Furthermore, if the truth is discovered, the child may feel angry and betrayed on top of the grief they could have initially felt if they were told the truth.

Support your child by being honest, open, and communicative. Grieve together and allow your child to participate in the pet's memorial. They might want to write a letter, leave a treat, or talk about their fun memories with their pet. These can all be healthy ways to handle grief. 

Helping A Senior Cope With The Loss Of A Pet

Seniors may adopt pets for companionship in older life. If their pet dies, it may feel challenging for an older adult to cope with the loss. For example: 

  • They may otherwise live alone and be reminded of the losses they have experienced

  • They may be in a fragile state, so grief may threaten their mental and physical health 

  • They may be unable to get another pet, as the pet may outlive them, or there may come a day when they are unable to care for the pet physically or financially

For these reasons, senior pet owners might require support in confronting the loss. One way to get support is by reaching out to friends or attending social gatherings like cards or bingo games. Some technical services offer phones or video chat platforms that are simpler in design for seniors to use to contact their families easily. These can also help prevent loneliness. 

If an older loved one is having extreme difficulty coping with the loss, they may benefit from seeking professional support. Seniors may also be interested in volunteering at a local animal shelter to be close to animals without taking on the responsibility of another pet. Some studies suggest using robot animals for seniors experiencing dementia or loneliness who crave companionship.

Why Is Losing A Pet So Difficult? 

While you can take steps to cope with losing your pet, it may feel highly challenging for many. Pets may change your life in monumental ways. They can help people stay active, get out and be more social, and offer joy when they do something sweet or make us laugh when they do something silly. For many, pets fulfill an instinct to nurture by giving them something to care for. 

Those living alone may find comfort and joy in having a pet companion. Several of these aspects may no longer be present when a pet dies. Owners may also experience guilt or shame as part of their grieving process. The owner may have been unable to afford the necessary care to prolong the pet's life, or there may have been a way to prevent death. Even if there was no other option, owners might feel they did something wrong.  

In an accidental or unexpected death, a pet's owner may struggle to heal from the loss or understand why it happened. They may spend time ruminating over how the accident could have been prevented or what they could or should have done differently. Although all of these factors can be challenging to deal with, grief is often a normal part of loss, and learning to accept and validate your emotional responses may be beneficial. It's okay to grieve your pet, and you can feel your emotions as long as you need to. 

The Grieving Process

The grieving process can feel the same, whether you are grieving a person or a pet. Everyone grieves in their own way. We may all come to terms differently with loss and experience healing on our own timeline. Once you reach the acceptance stage of grief, you may not forget your pet or the bond you had, but you might feel more comfortable with their loss with time. Grief may also flare up at certain moments, causing tears, stress, or memories to come back. These can be normal experiences.

If you want to repress your grief, know that it may be harmful. Studies show that suppressing emotions can negatively impact your overall health. If you allow yourself to feel and express your grief, you might find that you heal faster than if you try to ignore your grief and press on when you aren't ready. 

Others might act or speak insensitively during your process. They may not understand why you are grieving a pet. However, your loss is not insignificant due to the opinions of others. It may be helpful to seek comfort from those who validate and support how you feel. 

Counseling For Grief 

Counseling can be a convenient way to seek support during grieving, offering powerful tools for coping with emotions. However, you may not feel like leaving the house or attending an appointment when feeling down. In that case, online therapy can be a beneficial way to get support without leaving home.  

Online therapy can be as effective as face-to-face therapy for treating grief and other mental health concerns. A review of 123 studies on online counseling proved this, citing convenience and other factors as reasons for people preferring online options to traditional ones. Whether it's grief, depression, anxiety, or another symptom you're experiencing, online therapy may be a viable tool to heal and move forward.   

An online counseling platform like BetterHelp may connect you with licensed therapists equipped to walk you through each step of your journey with grief. Coping with the loss of a pet is not something you must endure on your own.

Read what others have to say about their experience with our licensed mental health providers.

Therapist Reviews

“Tiffany has been wonderful. The last 6 months have been a journey through the worst time of my life. Tiffany has been there to help break down some emotional barriers and allow me to grieve, as well as find a way to deal with the additional emotions that have come with it. She's been wonderful.”

“I feel confident in stating Erika probably saved my life. With her help I grieved the loss of ability to work, brain surgery, divorce, my dogs death and the loss of a relationship with my stepsons. I know it sounds like a bad country western song. With Erika’s help I got through it and continue to work through it.”

Takeaway

Losing a pet can be a unique loss that often takes time to work through. Though you may never forget your pet, you can take steps to manage and cope with your emotions. Confiding in a therapist may help you work through your feelings productively with up-to-date therapeutic techniques for grief. Although healing may not be linear, seeing a therapist could be an act of self-care during this challenging time.

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