When a parent, spouse, child or someone close to us dies, our loss is usually met with sympathy, comfort, and offerings of sincere condolence. We are allowed to grieve. We are allowed to cry. We are allowed to experience our emotions.
But talk to the millions of pet owners who have had a dog hit by a car or a terminally ill cat euthanized and you will hear quite a different story. Many will tell you that most people did not understand the depth of their grief. Some even experienced the gross insensitivity of a comment like, “Why don’t you just get another pet?”
Mourning a pet may not only be painful because of the loss itself, but deeper due to the potential loneliness of this type of grieving.
Why Are the Feelings So Painful?
When we are grieving the loss of a beloved pet, we are actually mourning several losses at the same time. These include:
- The loss of unconditional love: Our pets provide us with emotional responses that are uninhibited by concern for how their expression appears to others. Many of our human relationships aren’t that simple; they can be riddled with anxiety about rejection and other fears that often dictate how we behave and what we share. Our pets do not judge insecurity or imperfection. They are all-accepting in ways few humans can achieve.
- The loss of a protégé: Having a pet is much like being a parent. We are responsible for another life and often go to great lengths to ensure our pet’s physical and emotional comfort. Numerous activities revolve around our animal companion’s needs. We hire pet walkers and sitters to provide our furry friend with company or exercise. We go to dog parks to enhance our pooch’s life with social activity. All are efforts to provide our charge with the best caretaking possible. Consequently, the loss of a pet can feel like the loss of a child.
- The loss of a “life witness”: Not only do our animals provide us with their uninhibited emotional expression, but they also allow us to express parts of ourselves that we may never let other humans see. They observe our weaknesses, our victories, and move through years of our lives with us. During periods of upheaval, they often provide us with security, stability and comfort.
- The loss of multiple relationships and routines: Each role that the pet occupied (e.g., friend, child, significant other) as well as each role that we as owners took on is a loss. We must say goodbye to feeding time, walking routes, and all the aspects that made up our practical routines. We must not only say goodbye to the physical activities, but to the reflexive way we called to our companion when we wanted comfort and love. These goodbyes all contribute to the time and patience needed to grieve the loss of a pet.
- The loss of a primary companion: For some of us, our pet was our only social companion in the world. We may not have had any other close contacts, due perhaps to depression, anxiety, or a debilitating physical illness. We relied exclusively on our pet for support and love.
What Might Make My Grief More Complicated?
As if the range of losses just listed was not enough, grief may be complicated by any number of additional factors, including:
- Guilt: This is the primary stumbling block to a healthy grieving process. Did I do enough? Or “If only I…” Whether the pet died after a short or long struggle, many of us wonder if there were routes not explored, medications not taken, surgeries not performed. If we were unsure about whether all options were exhausted, then residual guilt may hinder moving through grief effectively.
- Euthanasia: Many of us are called upon to make the excruciating decision to end the life of a beloved pet. We spend our lives ensuring the health of our companion, and while euthanasia may end our pet’s suffering, it contradicts every instinct we have. Grief is further complicated if we are plagued by doubt — was it really the right time? Was he really getting worse? Questions like these may never be answered. Furthermore, we are left with the image of our pet as he or she died, which can be overwhelming.
- Circumstances surrounding the loss: If our pet died in a way we perceive could have been avoided, the duration and severity of guilt can be intensified. “I should have closed the screen door tighter so he couldn’t run into the street” or “I wish I had noticed her symptoms sooner, because she’d be alive today if I had.” Such comments only serve to punish us even further.
- Expectations that mourning will end at a particular time: One of the ways grief gets derailed is when we or those we turn to for support impose a timeline. “I should be better by now,” or “Why is she still so sad?” Not having the necessary time to mourn, which varies for each of us, creates emotional pressure to “get better quickly.” This ultimately results in the opposite of what we’re seeking — the process and all the feelings take longer to subside.
- Reawakening of an old loss: A companion animal’s death may remind the owner of a previous loss, animal or human. An unresolved loss complicates the current mourning process. It is then important to not only mourn the lost pet, but to take this opportunity to achieve closure on earlier losses.
- Resistance to mourning: This complication often arises out of our existing style of coping. Some of us may suppress feelings so that we don’t appear weak. We may fear that the tears may never stop if we allow them to begin. Whatever we use to defend against our true emotional experience will complicate our natural progression of grief.
Many of these complications have important functions. Staying conflicted about the death of our pets often binds us to our deceased companion, keeping us closer to the time when he or she was alive. Letting go of grief can also be mistakenly interpreted as a betrayal, that trying to feel better is equated with trying to forget. That is not the goal of grieving. We’ll always love our pet. Healthy grieving is getting “through,” not over, a loss.
What Can I Do to Help Myself Grieving the Loss of a Pet?
There are several things you can do to aid in the mourning of your loss:
- Be patient and kind with yourself. This is the first key to dealing with your grief effectively. Our losses are real, painful, and evoke a variety of feelings and memories. Any time you find yourself wishing you were better, wanting to be “past” it, remind yourself that your emotional processing has no set endpoint. You’re in mourning and, by pressuring yourself, you only make yourself feel worse.
- Find an ally: Find at least one safe person you can talk to about your loss. If you can’t identify someone who is safe, call your veterinarian and ask for the name of another pet owner who recently experienced a loss, or look into joining a support group specifically for pet loss. Also, check out these websites: the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement; and the Pet Loss Grief Support website, which has chat rooms and online memorial services.
- Conduct an overview of your pet’s life: You can do this by writing down your thoughts and feelings or by sharing your pet’s story with your ally. When did you get your pet? What are some special memories? What were his or her personality features? What will you miss the most? This overview helps solidify the things you want to make sure not to forget.
- Engage in rituals: Humans have prescribed ways to mourn. We have funerals, ceremonies, and anniversaries of the beloved’s death acknowledged. These rites are designed to help us grieve and to remember our loved ones. Create your own rituals for your pet. Have a ceremony in the dog park. Hold a service at home or in a place special to you and your pet.
- Dispose of possessions gradually: Often, we encounter the food bowl, bed, or blankets and are unsure of what to do with them. The first step can be to move them to a different location from where they usually were. For instance, take the bed out of your bedroom. This helps the transition, and lets you move the items before you remove them. When you are ready, put your pet’s tag on your keychain. Seal his or her belongings in a trunk. Donate the bed to an animal organization.
- Memorialize your pet: Do a tree planting or sow a garden. These can be living tributes that will continue as reminders for years to come.
This is a sorrowful time. While we may be compelled to find strategies to move us through this period, there will be occasions when we won’t have answers to our painful questions or activities to quell our longings.
What would your pet do if he or she found you sad and in pain? The answer is clear: give you love, give you comfort, and stay with you as long as it took. We can all take a lesson from our animal friends.