Losing a pet is not easy for most people.
Pets — or what researchers call companion animals — are most often seen today as a fellow member of the family. It is not surprising then to learn that most people grieve a pet’s passing as much, and sometimes even more, than the passing of a human friend or family member.
What makes the passing of a pet so hard? How can we better cope with it?
Some people think that it’s silly to grieve over the loss of a pet. Those people either never had much of an attachment to any pet, never had one growing up as a child, or never really experienced the unconditional love and affection that only an animal can provide.
Whether they die from illness, an accident, or had to be euthanized, losing a cat, dog, or other beloved animal is a traumatic event. Even if the death was expected due to old age, the loss of their constant companionship is hard to put into words. It’s like a large hole is in your heart, and nothing in this world will ever be good enough to fill it as your lost pet did.
Having our companion euthanized can be especially difficult, even when we know it’s time and it’s for the best to end their pain and suffering. In a study conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania (Quackenbush & Glickman, 1984), it was discovered that individuals were at the greatest distress and at greatest risk for experiencing extreme grief when they had to euthanize their pet.
Sadly, many people don’t understand pet loss and the value that pets hold in a person’s life.
This can greatly add to a pet owner’s grief. Instead of being comforted and heard by friends or family (what psychologists refer to as validation), the person is told, “It was just a dog (or cat), get over it” or “I’m not sure why you miss that cat (or dog) so much.” These kinds of unintentionally hurtful comments can add to a person’s burden of grief (Messam & Hart, 2019).
The researchers also note:
Feeling guilty often is a component of the grief, especially if the owner is conflicted about a decision for euthanasia, or feels that appropriate care was not provided. Grief for an animal, though becoming more socially accepted, remains somewhat disenfranchised. For example, time off work is typically not an option.
What You Can Do to Feel Better After Pet Loss
The loss of a four-legged loved one is rarely easy. But there are some things you can do during and after the loss. It appears that having to euthanize our loved one brings special difficulties. Being actively involved in the decision process of ending a pet’s life, however, can often be helpful, allowing a person to take comfort in their passing.
While some people report becoming distressed by reminders of their deceased — such as cat/dog toys, bowls, and leashes — others take comfort in them. If they are causing you additional distress, put them away somewhere out of sight for a time. You don’t have to get rid of them just yet, but there’s no point in having them bring reminders of painful memories or sadness.
The Rainbow Bridge is a popular theme in pet loss because it suggests that we will all meet again in the afterlife. This is a source of great comfort, knowing that we can reunite with a loved one after we too have passed.
Feelings of guilt often accompany euthanasia. It is a heavy burden to bear deciding when to end another being’s life. These feelings are perfectly natural. But please know that you ended your pet’s life because it was their time. You put an end to a time where they were suffering and likely in some sort of pain or distress. There was no hope for recovery or further treatment that would provide both quantity of life, and more importantly, quality of life.
Your pet appreciated all that you did for them, and all the love you bestowed upon them. They got as much as they gave, and lived a life full of knowing they were appreciated and cared for by you. It was a relationship that benefited them as much as it did you.
Many pet owners feel their pets are like surrogate children. When put into this context, it is completely understandable why the loss of a pet can be so devastating. Losing a source of non-judgmental, unconditional love in a person’s life is usually extremely difficult, no matter the source of that love. While some people don’t understand this, pet owners nearly always do.
Many owners find comfort in memorialization of their pet (Messam & Hart, 2019). These kinds of activities can include having a funeral or wake for the pet (either privately, or with close, trusted friends and family). Some like to create an online photo gallery, print photos, or even create a scrapbook or photo collage. Some find comfort in cremating a pet and keeping their ashes in a memorial box with the engraving of their pet’s name on top.
Grief coping strategies for pet loss often start with reading pet loss bereavement articles (whether it be a book or online)(Messam & Hart, 2019). Additional coping strategies include writing letters or blogs to the pet, interacting with other animals (such as at shelters), joining a pet loss support group online, and keeping busy with routines, seeing friends, and volunteering. In extreme cases of loss, it is not uncommon for a person to seek out grief therapy from a mental health professional.
How Long Will My Grief Last?
Nobody can say for certain how long your grief will last. The feelings of loss and sadness are very individualistic, and so can vary widely. In one small study of 82 people who had lost their pet, “25% took between 3 and 12 months to accept the loss of their pet, 50% between 12 and 19 months, and 25% took between 2 and 6 years, to recover” (Messam & Hart, 2019).
As you can see, there is a wide gulf in the range of time it can take to fully recover from losing your pet. This is a reminder that grief takes as long as it takes to fully experience. There is nothing you can do to speed up the process, or feel it more fully. It comes when it comes and lasts as long as it needs to.
You will get over the loss of your pet. But you will never forget the love and times you shared together. Someday, you may even feel ready to open your heart up again to another furry or feathered friend. Our hearts are large enough to welcome much love into our lives, throughout our lives.
I hope your burden during this trying time is not too heavy. Please remember and know, you are not alone and you will get through this.
For further reading…
Messam, LLM & Hart, LA. (2019). Persons Experiencing Prolonged Grief After the Loss of a Pet. In Clinician’s Guide to Treating Companion Animal Issues, 267-280.
Quackenbush, J. E., & Glickman, L. (1984). Helping people adjust to the death of a pet. Health
and Social Work, 9, 42–48.