- 7 Ways to Cope With the Loss of a Pet
- Feeling Your Pain
- 7 Strategies for Coping
- Good Grief
- Coping with the loss of a pet
- Confronting the Idea of Loss
- Coping With Death
- My Pet Died. How Can I Feel Better?
- Coping With Your Pet’s Death: An Important Guide
- Consider Your Pet’s Quality of Life
- When a Pet Dies Unexpectedly
- Talking to Children About the Death of a Pet
- Emotions Following a Pet’s Death
- Grieving the Loss of a Pet
- Finding Ways to Cope With Pet Loss
- Memorializing a Deceased Pet
- Getting a New Pet After Loss
- Grieving a Pet: How to Cope With the Loss of a Dog
- Coping with Losing a Pet
- It’s natural to feel devastated by feelings of grief and sadness when a beloved dog, cat, or other pet dies. These tips can help you cope.
- The grieving process after the loss of a pet
- Coping with the grief of pet loss
- Tips for seniors grieving the death of a pet
- Helping children grieve the loss of a pet
- Making the decision to put a pet to sleep
- Getting another dog or cat after pet loss
- What to do if you lose your pet
- Contact local animal shelters and animal control agencies
- Search the neighborhood
- Try the internet
- Be wary of pet-recovery scams
- Don’t give up your search
- When You Lose a Pet
7 Ways to Cope With the Loss of a Pet
Find a way that is meaningful to you to honor your pet, like placing pictures throughout your home or planting a memorial garden.
Nothing can prepare you for losing a beloved family member. When that family member is your pet, though, there is a unique set of emotions you must deal with. We asked Laurel Lagoni, a pioneer in grief support programs for pet owners, to share her thoughts and considerations that may help you better cope during a difficult time.
Feeling Your Pain
Following the loss of a pet, we need to allow ourselves to experience feelings of pain and sorrow, Lagoni says. She’s the co-founder and former director of the Argus Institute for Families and Veterinary Medicine at Colorado State University and one of the authors of a groundbreaking textbook on grief and the human–animal bond. The institute was founded in 1984 to help prepare veterinary professionals to successfully meet the emotional needs of pet-owning families, particularly in times of grief. “As a society, we’re always trying to circumvent the feelings of grief,” she says. “We tell people to keep busy, or we try to cheer people up. But, that really prolongs the grief process.”
7 Strategies for Coping
1. Talk through it. “The best thing you can do is find people you can talk to about your pet,” Lagoni says. “Find someone who will allow you to talk at length and reminisce.” Find a support group, or call a hotline — many veterinary schools have them — and take as long as you need.
2. Address any feelings of guilt. While many people hope their pet will pass quietly in his sleep, it may not happen that way, Lagoni says. As an owner, you may need to face the possibility of euthanasia. Many pet owners struggle with feelings of guilt at having to make that choice for their beloved friend. “Don’t think of it as taking your pet’s life, but see it as a privilege and a gift to spare them from those very hard end stages of the dying process, when there’s a lot of pain and suffering,” she says.
3. Consider a ceremony. Many people find great comfort in gathering with friends and family to remember their cherished pet, either with a ceremony before or during euthanasia, or after the pet has passed. “A lot of people handle euthanasia as a memorial service or funeral,” Lagoni says. “It’s a time for them to say goodbye and also celebrate the pet’s life. The ceremonies can be gut-wrenching, but also very cathartic.”
4. If you have children, help them with remembrances. Children feel the loss deeply, too. Allow them to talk as much as they need to about their sadness. Giving them the opportunity to do something physically sometimes helps kids work through their pain. Children can draw a picture, make a clay paw print or release a balloon into the sky for their special pet.
5. Take your time. It’s important to go at your own pace. Deal with your grief as long as you need to, and don’t feel rushed to “get over” your sorrow. “Everyone’s grief is an individual process,” Lagoni says. “We all find comfort in different things. If there are muddy foot prints on the back window and fur on the floor, and you’re not ready to give them up yet — then leave them right there.”
6. Tie up loose ends. If you’re having lingering questions or doubts about how your pet died, make an appointment with your veterinarian to get your questions answered. Don’t leave yourself wondering for years to come — be sure you can move forward without any questions or doubts.
7. Memorialize your pet. Find a way that is meaningful to you to honor your pet. Planting trees or memorial gardens, volunteering, making a donation to a favorite animal charity or installing a plaque in the yard are some ways to keep your pet’s memory alive. Among the myriad other options are cremation or memorial urns and placement in a pet cemetery.
Grief is an active process. It is important to understand that it’s completely normal to mourn the loss of your pet. “You have to realize it’s a significant loss, it’s going to be real and it’s going to hurt,” Lagoni says. “You have to find ways to cope with it. Don’t ignore it or try to avoid it.” Difficult though it may be, be open to feelings of grief when they occur and take the time to work through your sorrow. And, be comforted in the thought that there will come a day when you can remember your friend with fond memories and love from a strong heart.
More on Vetstreet:
- How to Help Someone Who’s Grieving the Loss of Their Pet
- Saying Goodbye to Bruce: A Moving Tribute to a Beloved Pet Pug
- Bittersweet Memories: How We Keep Our Pets in Our Hearts Forever
- How to Talk to Your Kids About Pet Euthanasia
- A Last Ode to Old Man Doug
Coping with the loss of a pet
When someone we love – such as a beloved pet – dies, the loss often causes grief and intense sorrow. By physically showing your grief, you actively mourn the death of your beloved pet. This active mourning will move you on a journey toward reconciling with the loss of your pet.
What should I do?
Your journey of grief will not take on a prescribed pattern or look like stages. During the period when you are actively mourning your loss, it may help to consider the following:
Acknowledge the reality of the death
Acknowledging the full reality of your loss may take weeks or months, but will be done in a time that is right for you. Be kind to yourself as you prepare for the “new normal” of a life without your beloved pet. 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
Experiencing these emotional thoughts and feelings about the death of a pet is a difficult, but important, need. A healthier grief journey may come from taking your time to work through your feelings rather than trying to push them away or ignore it.
Continue your relationship through memories
Your memories allow your pets to live on in you. Embracing these memories, both happy and sad, can be a very slow and, at times, painful process that occurs in small steps. For example, take some time to look at past photos, write a tribute to your pet, or write your pet a letter recalling your time together.
Adjust your self-identity
Part of your self-identity might come from being a pet owner. Others may also think of you in relation to your pet. You may be “the guy who always walked the big black dog around the neighborhood” or “the friend whose cat always jumped on laps.” Adjusting to this change is a central need of mourning.
Search for meaning
When a pet dies, it’s natural to question the meaning and purpose of pets in your life. Coming to terms with these questions is another need you must meet during your grief journey. Know that it is the asking, not the finding of concrete answers, that is important.
Receive support from others
You need the love and support of others because you never “get over” grief. Talking or being with other pet owners who have experienced the death of a pet can be one important way to meet this need.
Things to Remember
The experience of loss is different for everyone and can present unique challenges.
The deafening silence – the silence in your home after the death of a pet may seem excruciatingly loud. While your animal companion occupies physical space in your life and your home, many times their presence is felt more with your senses. When that pet is no longer there, the lack of their presence – the silence – becomes piercing. It becomes the reality of the “presence of the absence.” Merely being aware of this stark reality will assist in preparing you for the flood of emotions.
The special bond with your pet—the relationship shared with your pet is a special and unique bond, a tie that some might find difficult to understand. There will be well-meaning friends and family members who will think that you should not mourn for your pet or who will tell you that you should not be grieving as hard as you are because “it’s just a cat” or “just a dog.” Your grief is normal and the relationship you shared with your special friend needs to be mourned.
Grief can’t be ranked—sometimes our heads get in the way of our heart’s desire to mourn by trying to justify the depth of our emotion. Some people will then want to “rank” their grief, pitting their grief emotions with others who may be “worse.” While this is normal, your grief is your grief and deserves the care and attention of anyone who is experiencing a loss.
Questions of spirituality—during this time in your grief journey, you may find yourself questioning your beliefs regarding pets and the after-life. Many people around you will also have their own opinions. It will be important during this time for you to find the answers right for you and your individual and personal beliefs.
For all of the good things that pets bring into our lives, their deaths can be a brutal loss. While it’s understood that domestic animals don’t live as long as we humans do, often no more than ten to twenty years, Yet dealing with this fact is far easier said than done. Watching the aging process, accepting the decline, and scheduling the euthanasia if necessary can be more painful than you ever imagined. No matter how prepared you are for your pet to leave this earth, saying goodbye creates a profound sense of loss.
Confronting the Idea of Loss
To most pet owners, pets are family. A dog isn’t “just a dog,” and a cat isn’t “just a cat.” As members of your household you see, touch, and interact with them on a daily basis. It doesn’t take long for a deep and enduring bond to develop. Love for a pet is simple and pure, and losing this can sometimes be harder to handle than the loss of the complex relationships that we develop with other people.
Grief manifests itself in many ways, and there’s no right or wrong way to feel once your pet has passed on. The sadness may strike immediately and or it may come in waves of intense pain or when the world around you triggers a memory. You might cry for a while immediately following death, or cry on and off for days or even weeks. This is all completely okay. There is no wrong way to process the loss of a beloved member of your family. However, in order to move forward in a healthy and happy way it is very important to properly process your grief.
Coping With Death
Coping with a permanent loss is rarely an easy battle. The sadness that comes with death often perpetuates for extended periods of time, long after the initial pain has subsided. This can be especially true for those with deep relationships with their pets, or children who may be experiencing death for the very first time.
How you choose to cope with death and your loss can have a distinct impact on your long term well-being. With the right approach, you can work through your emotions and eventually feel at peace with the cherished memories of your beloved pet.
Take Time to Grieve
The moments right after the loss of your pet can be the most difficult. The initial emotions will be intense and can include sorrow, regret, and pain. Some pet owners will feel guilt as well, especially for those who made the decision to put down a sick pet.
All of these feelings are natural and completely appropriate. The loss of a pet is very hard, and it’s okay to let your sadness out. If you need time to cry, be angry, or wallow for a while, that is perfectly fine. Don’t let anyone tell you how to mourn and feel free to grieve in your own way on your own schedule without the worry of embarrassment or judgment.
When your pet dies, their memory continues to live on. If you have a spouse, children, friends, or family who knew your pet, don’t be afraid to take some time to share favorite memories or funny stories with them. Grief doesn’t have to be a solitary event, and letting your feelings out can help you appreciate the joy that your pet added to your life.
This can be especially helpful for families with children. A pet’s death is often the first experience many children have with the concept of permanent loss, and the experience can be very troubling. Tell your child what happened with plain and clear language, avoiding euphemisms and encourage them to ask as many questions as necessary. If they seem particularly sad, comfort them and urge them to share stories and thoughts to help manage the grieving process. By sharing and remembering the good times, you and your child can bond together over love instead of sadness.
Custom Paw Portraits
If you feel as though your grief is overwhelming, outside assistance may be beneficial. Many people feel intense sadness when a pet passes away, so your loss will be easy to understand for countless others. Group therapy can be a benefit, giving you a chance to talk about your pet while listening to stories from others dealing with the same struggles.
For those who choose to grieve privately, an appointment with a therapist or a call to a help line may provide guidance as you work through your feelings. Many clinical psychologists and therapists who specialize in grief are happy to work with individuals that have lost pets. Additionally, the ASPCA maintains a Pet Loss Hotline that can be reached at (877) GRIEF-10.
Honor Your Pet’s Memory
Jewelry With Ashes Inside
Your pet contributed many years of happy memories and good times, so a proper funeral and memorial can be an excellent way to honor and respect their mark on your life. How you choose to do this is up to you, but some pet owners prefer to maintain an urn, plant a tree over a burial spot, or create a photo album of the many happy moments.
Urns For Pets
If you are seeking a truly special way to keep a part of your pet near your heart, cremation jewelry from Cremation Solutions can give you a beautiful, wearable memorial to remember your departed friend. Available as gemstone jewelry, diamonds, keepsakes, lockets, and more. You can find the perfect solution to honor your pet’s memory. Cremation Solutions also offers cremation urns and monuments, providing the flexibility to create a statement in a way that’s best for you and your family.
Opening Up Your Heart by getting a new pet can be a point of contention after the loss. Some feel as though immediately bringing home a new kitten or puppy is disrespecting the honor of the fallen family member. While others see it as a way to help the heart to heal. Whether you plan to get a new animal right away or choose to take some time to process the loss, opening your heart to the possibility of a new pet can be a great way to add a bright spot to your life. While nothing can ever replace your beloved family member, providing a loving and wonderful life for a new animal in need can help you find comfort and heal your heart.
Despite the pain of loss, pet ownership is both gratifying and fulfilling. When you want to create an enduring memorial to your cat, dog, or other pet, Cremation Solutions can provide you with the resources that you need to keep a much-loved memory alive forever.
My Pet Died. How Can I Feel Better?
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A pet can be a great friend. Even if you’re having a bad day, if you don’t feel popular, or if you’re having trouble at school, your pet loves you. No strings attached. Millions of families throughout the world own pets, which means that every day someone goes through the heartbreak of losing an animal friend.
Whether it’s from old age, illness, or an accident, animals — like people — will die sometime. Veterinarians can do wonderful things for pets. But sometimes all the medical skill in the world can’t save an animal. And if a pet is in a lot of pain and will never get better, the vet may have to put it to sleep. This is known as euthanasia (pronounced: yoo-thuh-NAY-zhuh). The vet will give the animal an injection (shot) that first puts it to sleep and then stops the heart from beating. Euthanasia allows pets to die peacefully without any pain or fear. But deciding to help a pet die is still a hard thing to do.
Coping With the Death of a Pet
Emotions can get pretty complicated when a pet dies. You probably expect to feel sad, but you may have other emotions, too. For example, you may feel angry if your friends don’t seem to realize how much losing your pet means to you. Or perhaps you feel guilty that you didn’t spend more time with your pet before he or she died. It’s natural to feel a range of emotions when a pet dies.
If you’re like a lot of people, you may have had someone say to you, “Sorry, but it was only an animal.” So is it normal to get upset over the death of a pet? Absolutely. After all, by the time we reach our teenage years, many of us have grown up with our pets, and they’re part of the family. Just like losing a family member, when a pet dies people can go through a period of grieving.
Dealing With Grief
Grief can show up in many ways. Some people cry a lot. For others, the death may take a while to sink in. Some people temporarily lose interest in the things they enjoy doing or want to spend some quiet time alone. Others will want to keep busy to take their minds off the loss. It’s also natural to feel like avoiding situations that involved your pet — such as the park where you used to walk your dog or the trail where you rode your horse.
For many people, losing a pet can be their first experience with death. Recognizing and sorting out feelings can be a big help. Talking about a loss is one of the best ways to cope, which is why people get together after a funeral and share memories or stories about the person who has died. Acknowledging your grief by talking about it with friends and family members can help you begin to feel better.
There are other ways to express your feelings and thoughts. Recording them in a journal is helpful to many people, as is keeping a scrapbook. You can also write about your pet in a story or poem, draw a picture, or compose music. Or plan a funeral or memorial service for your pet. Some people choose to make a donation in a pet’s memory to an animal shelter or even volunteer there. All of these ideas can help you hold on to the good and happy memories.
Everyone has to deal with grief sometime, and most people work through it in time. But if you’re under stress or trying to deal with other serious problems at the same time, grief can feel overwhelming. If your sadness is intense or you think you’re upset about more than the death of your pet, it can be a good idea to talk with a professional counselor or therapist to help sort everything out. It’s normal for a death to raise questions about our own lives, but you may also want to talk to someone if you find yourself focusing on death a lot.
You’ll never forget your pet. But in time the painful feelings will ease. And when the time comes, you may even find yourself ready to open your home to a new pet in need of a loving family.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD Date reviewed: June 2018
Doug’s amateur soccer team had just lost its playoff game, and Doug needed a pick-me-up. He decided to stop by the local animal shelter on his way home because puppies always put a smile on his face. He was by no means looking to adopt an animal, but Delia, a five-month-old mutt, changed his mind. “I had her for 17 years,” Doug said, wiping away tears in our psychotherapy session. “I knew it would be rough when she died, but I had no idea… I was a total wreck. I cried for days. I couldn’t get any work done. And worst of all, I was too embarrassed about it to tell anyone. I spent days at work crying in private and muttering ‘allergies’ whenever someone glanced at my puffy eyes.”
Losing a beloved pet is often an emotionally devastating experience. Yet as a society, we do not recognize how painful pet loss can be and how much it can impair our emotional and physical health. Symptoms of acute grief after the loss of a pet can last from one to two months, with symptoms of grief persisting up to a full year (on average). The New England Journal of Medicine reported in October 2017 that after her dog died, a woman experienced “broken heart syndrome”—a condition in which the response to grief is so severe the person exhibits symptoms that mimic a heart attack, including elevated hormone levels that can be 30 times greater than normal.
Although grief over the loss of a cherished pet may be as intense and even as lengthy as when a significant person in our life dies, our process of mourning is quite different. Many of the societal mechanisms of social and community support are absent when a pet dies. Few of us ask our employers for time off to grieve a beloved cat or dog because we fear doing so would paint us as overly sentimental, lacking in maturity or emotionally weak. Studies have found that social support is a crucial ingredient in recovering from grief of all kinds. Thus, we are not only robbed of invaluable support systems when our pet dies, but our own perceptions of our emotional responses are likely to add an extra layer of distress. We may feel embarrassed and even ashamed about the severity of the heartbreak we feel and, consequently, hesitate to disclose our feelings to our loved ones. That additional shame complicates the process of recovery by making it more lengthy and complex than it should be.
Losing a pet can leave significant voids in our life that we need to fill: it can change our daily routines, causing ripple effects that go far beyond the loss of the actual animal. Caring for our pet creates responsibilities and a schedule around which we often craft our days. We get exercise by walking our dog, and we socialize with other owners at the dog runs. We awake early every day to feed our cat (or we are woken by a pet if we forget!), but we get a lot more done because of it.
Losing a pet disrupts these routines. Cats, dogs, horses and other cherished pets provide companionship, reduce loneliness and depression, and can ease anxiety. They support our emotional well-being and imbue our actions with meaning. This is why, in addition to emotional pain, we feel aimless and lost in the days and weeks after our pet dies.
Recovering from pet loss, as in all forms of grief, requires us to recognize these changes and find ways to deal with them. We need to seek social support from people we know will understand and sympathize with our emotions and not judge us for them. Many animal clinics offer bereavement groups for pet owners.
We might need to reorganize our routines and daily activities so we do not lose the secondary benefits we derived from having our pet. For example, if our exercise came from walking our dog we need to find alternative ways to reach our daily “step goals.” If we spent most Saturday mornings with our fellow pet owners, we need to find other outlets through which we can socialize and enjoy the outdoors.
It is time we gave grieving pet owners the recognition, support and consideration they need. Yes, it is up to us to identify and address our emotional wounds when our pet dies, but the more validation we receive from those around us, the quicker and the more complete our psychological recovery will be.
Coping With Your Pet’s Death: An Important Guide
“There really is no other decision we make in life that is similar,” Moses says. “People expect to feel clear about it and to know when it will feel right. But if you wait for that moment, you may prolong unnecessary suffering.”
However difficult the decision, euthanasia may be the kindest option for an animal who is suffering, says Michele Pich, a veterinary grief counselor and instructor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Ryan Veterinary Hospital in Philadelphia.
“Think about it in terms of the give and take of the human-animal bond: Sometimes they are here for us more, and sometimes we are there for them more,” she explains. “Euthanasia is the pet owner deciding to take on the emotional pain of letting their loved one go, to help prevent their pet from feeling any more physical pain.”
There is a difference between knowing intellectually that an animal’s life is at its end and feeling ready to choose euthanasia, Moses describes. Not surprisingly, most people put it off. In a 30-year career, Moses has had only three people tell her they felt they euthanized their pet too soon.
Pet parents often hope the pet will die peacefully in his or her sleep, but this rarely happens, and the pet usually suffers, Moses says. “I can’t make the decision for them. But I can, when needed, be an advocate for my patient, which is my first priority.”
Consider Your Pet’s Quality of Life
For Moses, decisions about euthanasia come down to quality of life. “When I meet a new patient for palliative care or a pain consultation, we always start with a quality of life assessment and come to a mutual agreement about what is in the best interests of the patient,” she says. “I think of that as a separate issue from what I might want or what the pet owner might want. What the pet wants can be different.”
To reach the best decision, Moses helps pet parents identify particularly important elements of the pet’s life and recognize that when those are lost, quality of life is greatly diminished. For example, Moses had an 18-year-old patient who always loved car rides, but the rides became physically uncomfortable for her, causing anxiety. “It no longer brought her the same pleasure,” she says.
Moses advises pet parents to be aware of subtle changes in their pet’s behavior and demeanor as clues that quality of life is declining. Such shifts can include standing apart on the edge of the dog park, no longer enjoying being petted, sleeping all the time, or altered sleep patterns (e.g. being awake at night and asleep during the day). It is particularly important to have a good relationship with a trusted veterinarian, who can offer a valuable perspective, she advises.
“Talk to people who care about you and your animal to maintain perspective,” Moses says. “When people who care about you are telling you things are changing, pay attention.”
When a Pet Dies Unexpectedly
For some pet parents, an unexpected or natural death is easier, because they do not have to make the decision to euthanize. For others, the shock only makes the loss more difficult.
“People tend to feel guilt either way,” Pich says. “When an animal dies naturally, some people tend to feel that maybe they should have caught the symptoms earlier and that they could have saved their pet. When an animal is euthanized, the guilt tends to center around whether the timing was right.”
Talking to Children About the Death of a Pet
Moses believes it is often an appropriate—and even positive—experience for children to be present when a pet is euthanized. “If you are honest and straightforward, they handle it pretty well—if they are at an age to understand why it is happening and won’t worry that it might happen to a person,” she says.
Pich agrees that it is important to be as honest as possible with children. Do not use the term “put to sleep” with children under 8, as they may associate this with their bedtime and not want to go to sleep, she advises. “If kids are old enough to have a bond with the pet, they are old enough to hear about the loss,” she says.
Whether the pet was euthanized or died naturally, Pich advises parents to avoid telling children the pet ran away or went to a farm to spare their feelings. These white lies may cause children to spend years looking for their pet rather than being allowed to grieve the loss, she says. Also, it can be good for children to see their parents grieve so they learn that being sad over a loss and expressing those feelings is normal, she adds.
Emotions Following a Pet’s Death
Regardless of the circumstances of the pet’s death, the immediate aftermath can be an emotional rollercoaster. “There is often a sense of numbness, and even sometimes relief that the animal is no longer suffering,” Pich says.
Moses says pet parents often have difficulty leaving the body after the animal dies, or they want to preserve a body part (an ear or piece of a tail), which is particularly distressing to the hospital staff.
Pich, who facilitates pet loss support groups at the University of Pennsylvania, says people often describe the house as being very quiet after a pet dies, even if there are others at home. People may initially find comfort staying busy or getting out of the house to avoid reminders.
“The emotional pain often starts to feel worse a few days to a few weeks in than it did on the first day,” Pich says. “This is surprising to many owners, but it means that the reality and the permanence of the situation are starting to set in.”
Grieving the Loss of a Pet
Pich says the stages of grief after losing a pet are similar to what people experience when losing a human loved one.
The initial stage, denial, can come at the time of a terminal diagnosis, resulting in putting off vet visits. It can also occur after the loss, in staying away from home to avoid confronting the pet’s absence.
Anger comes next and can be directed at oneself or the vet (for not being able to save the pet) or even toward the pet for not surviving. It can come out indirectly, too, Pich says, as impatience with family, friends, or coworkers.
Pet parents also may feel guilty, replaying events that led to the pet’s death and second-guessing themselves. Feelings of depression might follow, regardless of whether the person has a history of depression, as the pet parent realizes the loss is permanent.
Finally, people reach acceptance, where healing occurs, Pich says. This stage includes grieving and sadness but with appreciation for all the joy their pet’s life brought.
Finding Ways to Cope With Pet Loss
Talking to others who understand the loss and are supportive and patient can help, says Pich. Journaling, yoga, meditation, art projects, or travel may also be beneficial. “The most important thing is to be patient with themselves and to make choices that are kind to themselves,” she advises.
Sometimes the loss of a pet can result in “complicated grief,” or intense and lingering feelings of sadness that interfere with daily life. This type of grief can manifest after the deaths of loved ones occur in close succession, when a new loss reminds a person of an older one, or when caregiver demands complicate the death, she says.
Pet loss support groups, where people talk with others who understand their pain, can help normalize the grief process, Pich says. Individual or family counseling also may be needed. Pet grief support hotlines can connect callers with a compassionate listener. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” she stresses.
Memorializing a Deceased Pet
Some people choose funeral services or memorials that acknowledge the significance of the loss, Pich says. For example, friends or family might gather to share a story or picture of the animal. These efforts honor the pet and may help people cope, especially for owners who did not have a chance to say goodbye to the pet, Pich notes. Children may want to be involved, giving them a healthy way to express their feelings, she adds.
To keep a pet’s memory alive, consider framed photos, paintings, or drawings; create scrapbooks or shadowboxes; get clay paw prints made at the vet; or keep ashes in a special place at home or scatter them, Pich suggests. Others might choose to donate money in a pet’s name to an animal charity or give no-longer-needed pet supplies to an animal shelter.
Getting a New Pet After Loss
Moses does not advise getting a new pet as soon as one dies. “It’s very tempting, but I was never a person who could do that. I felt like it was disrespectful to the relationship with the animal I lost,” she says, adding that it is ultimately an individual decision. Her advice is to wait and try to be with the pain, however uncomfortable.
Pich agrees that there is no “right” time to get a new pet. One person might be ready a week later, while another might need a year. Some people dip their toes back in by fostering a pet. A woman in one of Pich’s support groups summed it up by saying, “You know you are ready when you can bring a new pet home and not expect them to be the one that died.”
- Give the popular poem, “The Rainbow Bridge,” a good read. Cry if you need to.
- Surround yourself with other people who knew and loved your cat. Don’t be afraid to say you are sad or angry and acknowledge the hurt you are all feeling together.
- If you have another pet, spend time with them. Pets grieve too so if you had a pet that was especially close to your cat it may help you both to spend time together.
- Try looking at pictures of your pet or sort through its favorite things. Consider making a photo album, scrapbook, or shadow box to remember your cat and remind you of happier times.
- Redirect your attention and focus. Don’t forget that there are still many beautiful things about life, even though your cat is gone. Spend time doing things you enjoy.
- Call an empathetic friend who loves cats and talk to them. If you can’t think of someone to call, try going online to a forum or support group for people who are experiencing the loss of a pet. Talk about your cat and tell someone what you loved about your cat and why they were so special.
- Consider getting a new cat someday. This may be completely out of the question for some people, but for others, they need that tangible, physical being to hold and pet. You will never truly be able to replace your cat but you may help fill the emptiness in your heart with a new one.
- Remind yourself that time cannot be slowed down or sped up but it will get easier for you to cope with each passing day.
- See a grief counselor or therapist. Talk therapy is powerful and often necessary. There is no shame in needing help getting through a difficult situation.
Three weeks ago, I euthanised my 27-year-old horse, Cheque. We’d been together since I was 14 and he was – and remains – my special horse: the one I would ride anywhere and trust with anyone; the one whose moods I could read with a glance. I miss seeing him in my paddock; I miss kissing his nose and how he ate his apples, one tiny bite at a time.
The grief associated with losing an animal is a type of disenfranchised grief, one that is not acknowledged broadly; a grief that is too often borne in silence. But the depth of a relationship between a family and their pet is deep and complex; animals become part of the fabric of our lives. They improve our mental health and general wellbeing. They are company for the lonely, and a comfort to the distressed.
The complexity of this relationship is rarely apparent from the outside; full of tiny moments that build up – as they do between people – into something rich and meaningful. And this is reflected in the various ways people cope with and grieve the loss of their pets.
When I realised the grief associated with the death of a pet is rarely spoken about, I decided to ask for people’s thoughts and experiences of losing their pets. What helped them while they were grieving? The response was overwhelming. In 24 hours, I received more than a hundred responses. Patterns quickly emerged; methods that helped people cope, and things people struggled with, often in silence.
Many people who responded said they were comforted by having their pet’s remains or possessions close to them. A friend of mine, Kim, lost her beloved chihuahua, Paris, more than a year ago. Afterwards, Kim had her cremated and carries some of Paris’s ashes with her in a locket.
In fact, there’s an entire industry devoted to helping people create mementoes of your pets when they die. When my mother’s horse died suddenly seven years ago, I found a small business online that would create jewellery and key rings out of your horse’s mane. My mother still carries it with her. Similarly, animal rescuer Bec wore her dog’s collars on her wrist as a bracelet until the ashes came home; she also has photos of her departed pets – three dogs and a budgie – in a locket she always wears.
Sarah, another animal rescuer, talked about the pain of losing her dog. “I couldn’t move,” she said. “I couldn’t get up. I could barely eat or drink. It was the worst, most unbearable pain I had experienced in my life.” She still keeps his ashes on her bedside table.
I asked Kelsey, a vet nurse from Melbourne, what people do with their animals after their death. “Many of our clients will request a cremation service or to take their pets home with them, rather than an organised burial,” she said. Interestingly, Kelsey also noted people often visit a different clinic to their regular one when it comes time to euthanise their pet.
‘I miss how he ate his apples, one tiny bite at a time’: Eliza Henry-Jones with her horse Cheque, who died three weeks ago
Many people want to tell stories and share memories of their pet when they die. They reach out for comfort. Wikum, a friend of mine, spoke of how confronting it had been watching his family’s dog die in their living room, while his family gathered to pray. He found his belief in reincarnation helped him through the awful time and that, while devastating, he was grateful they were all there and able to soothe their dog’s passing.
The grief associated with the death of a pet can become even more complicated when we make the decision to put them down. For many of us, deciding when to euthanise a pet is the only time we are confronted with a life-or-death decision. This decision is compounded by the fact that we cannot ask them what they want; we make the choice entirely on our own, and the responsibility and guilt of it can be crushing.
The number of responses I received – including photos of dead animals, graves and ashes – seems to indicate people don’t have adequate avenues to express their grief. While animals are accepted as being a part of the family, there is still an overwhelming perception their loss is not a truly valid grief. People talked about guilt and stigma – with many feeling uncomfortable asking for time off work, even though they felt they needed it. Even more explained they did not feel properly supported by the people around them. Most of all, people appreciated empathy – an understanding their grief was real and normal.
Interestingly, the varied and individual nature of the responses demonstrates we don’t really have defined traditions associated with the death of a pet in our society. While some people craved distance, others craved closeness with their pet’s remains. People dealt with their grief with tattoos – sometimes of a paw print taken at their veterinary clinic – and photos; with ashes and antidepressants; with work and with family. While we often follow traditions associated with the death of a relative, it seems responding to a pet’s death is much more varied.
More than 5 million households in Australia have a pet, to say nothing of the rest of the world – but we still have a way to go in how we deal with the grief of losing them.
Grieving a Pet: How to Cope With the Loss of a Dog
For anyone grieving the death of a pet, the pain can be overwhelming. Many dog owners view their canine companions as much more than an animal — to them, they’re members of the family. Losing your best friend is heartbreaking and can leave behind a profound sense of emptiness and loss.
Each person deals with grief differently, but that doesn’t make the death any less painful. Some people find it hard to express their feelings because not everyone around them understands the gravity of the loss, especially if they’ve never had a dog of their own.
Lynette Whiteman, a caregiver who runs a therapy dog program in New Jersey for the elderly and individuals with dementia, has learned through her professional work and personal losses that having a supportive family member or friend to talk to helps with the grieving process. “People who are not dog lovers don’t understand what the big deal is, and that can be very damaging,” she says.
Moira Anderson Allen, author of “Coping with Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet,” adds, “If someone has never experienced this kind of relationship, they genuinely don’t know how important it is to those of us who have.”
Join a Pet Loss Support Group
In our time of sadness, what we hope for is someone who is compassionate, even if that person lacks the understanding of why we are grieving. But as Allen points out, it is sometimes difficult to find that support.
Heidi McBain, a licensed professional counselor based in Texas, suggests seeking out like-minded people who have been where you are. “Social media and online groups are good places to start,” she says. Also, private therapy and support hotlines and/or groups, offer a safe place to open up and connect with others going through similar experiences.
A great place to start is the AKC Pet Loss Support Group on Facebook. The private Facebook group offers group members a place to grieve and comfort one another.
“It’s important to understand you shouldn’t grieve alone,” says Mary Brosnan, a social worker and leader of the group. “The most important thing you can get out of a group is the sense that there is nothing wrong with you for feeling the way you do.”
Memorializing Your Dog
In addition to seeking support, there are easy ways you can honor your beloved pet’s memory.
- Commemorate his life: One of the best ways to find closure is to hold a memorial service. Whether you choose to bury your dog or scatter his ashes in a place that holds special meaning, a memorial service gives you and your family the chance to say goodbye.
- Create a legacy: Plant a tree or flowers in your dog’s favorite spot; name a star in his honor; create a shadow box with items like a collar, toy, or blanket; have a portrait rendered; or get creative with your dog’s photographs by making a scrapbook. “These are some of the ideas I’ve shared with people I work with,” says Afton Strate, a licensed clinical marriage and family therapist.
- Start new traditions: On your dog’s birthday, acknowledge his life by volunteering at a local shelter or donate to an animal charity in his name, Strate suggests. Aug. 28 marks Rainbow Bridge Remembrance Day, so take a moment to look back on the joy, laughter, and unconditional love he brought to your life.
- Professional photos: Having photographs of your dog is priceless, especially after he passes away. Jenna Regan, a professional pet photographer in the Dallas and Fort Worth area, often photographs dogs at the end of their lives. “I’ve had many clients hire me specifically to capture the last, and often first, professional photos of their dog,” she says. “My clients tell me that having these photos of happy moments together means a lot to them, and the experience plus the resulting images help them through the grieving process.”
Do Dogs Mourn?
When you lose a pet, it can be difficult for surviving pets, as well. Dr. Mary Burch, director of the AKC Family Dog Program and a certified animal behaviorist, points out that dogs demonstrate their grief in different ways. They may become lethargic and less active, have a decreased appetite, or stay close to the deceased animal’s bed or favorite spot.
Owners can help their surviving dog cope by giving him lots of love and attention. Dr. Burch suggests trying new activities together, like a basic training class such as AKC’s Canine Good Citizen program, or even a hike. The goal is to find things to share with your dog while you both mourn.
Just how long grief lasts varies for everyone. For some, bringing a new dog into the home sooner rather than later can help ease the pain. For others, it takes longer to open up their hearts and home again. Just remember, it’s completely natural to mourn the loss of a dog, and you’re never alone in your grief.
Coping with Losing a Pet
It’s natural to feel devastated by feelings of grief and sadness when a beloved dog, cat, or other pet dies. These tips can help you cope.
Many of us share an intense love and bond with our animal companions. For us, a pet is not “just a dog” or “just a cat,” but rather a beloved member of our family, bringing companionship, fun, and joy to our lives. A pet can add structure to your day, keep you active and social, help you to overcome setbacks and challenges in life, and even provide a sense of meaning or purpose. So, when a cherished pet dies, it’s normal to feel racked by grief and loss.
The pain of loss can often feel overwhelming and trigger all sorts of painful and difficult emotions. While some people may not understand the depth of feeling you had for your pet, you should never feel guilty or ashamed about grieving for an animal friend.
While we all respond to loss differently, the level of grief you experience will often depend on factors such as your age and personality, the age of your pet, and the circumstances of their death. Generally, the more significant your pet was to you, the more intense the emotional pain you’ll feel. The role the animal played in your life can also have an impact. For example, if your pet was a working dog, service animal, or therapy animal, you’ll not only be grieving the loss of a companion but also the loss of a coworker, the loss of your independence, or the loss of emotional support. If you lived alone and the pet was your only companion, coming to terms with their loss can be even harder. And if you were unable to afford expensive veterinary treatment to prolong your pet’s life, you may even feel a profound sense of guilt.
While experiencing loss is an inevitable part of owning a pet, there are healthy ways to cope with the pain, come to terms with your grief, and when the time is right, perhaps even open your heart to another animal companion.
The grieving process after the loss of a pet
Grieving is a highly individual experience. Some people find grief following the loss of a pet comes in stages, where they experience different feelings such as denial, anger, guilt, depression, and eventually acceptance and resolution. Others find that their grief is more cyclical, coming in waves, or a series of highs and lows. The lows are likely to be deeper and longer at the beginning and then gradually become shorter and less intense as time goes by. Still, even years after a loss, a sight, a sound, or a special anniversary can spark memories that trigger a strong sense of grief.
The grieving process happens only gradually. It can’t be forced or hurried—and there is no “normal” timetable for grieving. Some people start to feel better in weeks or months. For others, the grieving process is measured in years. Whatever your grief experience, it’s important to be patient with yourself and allow the process to naturally unfold.
Feeling sad, shocked, or lonely is a normal reaction to the loss of a beloved pet. Exhibiting these feelings doesn’t mean you are weak or your feelings are somehow misplaced. It just means that you’re mourning the loss of an animal you loved, so you shouldn’t feel ashamed.
Trying to ignore your pain or keep it from surfacing will only make it worse in the long run. For real healing, it is necessary to face your grief and actively deal with it. By expressing your grief, you’ll likely need less time to heal than if you withhold or “bottle up” your feelings. Write about your feelings and talk about them with others who are sympathetic to your loss.
Coping with the grief of pet loss
Sorrow and grief are normal and natural responses to death. Like grief for our friends and loved ones, grief for our animal companions can only be dealt with over time, but there are healthy ways to cope with the pain. Here are some suggestions:
Don’t let anyone tell you how to feel, and don’t tell yourself how to feel either. Your grief is your own, and no one else can tell you when it’s time to “move on” or “get over it.” Let yourself feel whatever you feel without embarrassment or judgment. It’s okay to be angry, to cry or not to cry. It’s also okay to laugh, to find moments of joy, and to let go when you’re ready.
Reach out to others who have lost pets. Check out online message boards, pet loss hotlines, and pet loss support groups—see the Resources section below for details. If your own friends and family members are not sympathetic about pet loss, find someone who is. Often, another person who has also experienced the loss of a beloved pet may better understand what you’re going through.
Rituals can help healing. A funeral can help you and your family members openly express your feelings. Ignore people who think it’s inappropriate to hold a funeral for a pet, and do what feels right for you.
Create a legacy. Preparing a memorial, planting a tree in memory of your pet, compiling a photo album or scrapbook, or otherwise sharing the memories you enjoyed with your pet, can create a legacy to celebrate the life of your animal companion. Remembering the fun and love you shared with your pet can help you to eventually move on.
Look after yourself. The stress of losing a pet can quickly deplete your energy and emotional reserves. Looking after your physical and emotional needs will help you get through this difficult time. Spend time face to face with people who care about you, eat a healthy diet, get plenty of sleep, and exercise regularly to release endorphins and help boost your mood.
If you have other pets, try to maintain your normal routine. Surviving pets can also experience loss when a pet dies, or they may become distressed by your sorrow. Maintaining their daily routines, or even increasing exercise and play times, will not only benefit the surviving pets but can also help to elevate your mood and outlook, too.
Seek professional help if you need it. If your grief is persistent and interferes with your ability to function, your doctor or a mental health professional can evaluate you for depression.
Dealing with the loss of a pet when others devalue your loss
One aspect that can make grieving for the loss of a pet so difficult is that pet loss is not appreciated by everyone. Some friends and family may say, “What’s the big deal? It’s just a pet!” Some people assume that pet loss shouldn’t hurt as much as human loss, or that it is somehow inappropriate to grieve for an animal. They may not understand because they don’t have a pet of their own or are unable to appreciate the companionship and love that a pet can provide.
- Don’t argue with others about whether your grief is appropriate or not.
- Accept the fact that the best support for your grief may come from outside your usual circle of friends and family members.
- Seek out others who have lost pets; those who can appreciate the magnitude of your loss, and may be able to suggest ways of getting through the grieving process.
Tips for seniors grieving the death of a pet
As we age, we experience an increasing number of major life changes, including the loss of beloved friends, family members, and pets. The death of a pet can hit retired seniors even harder than younger adults who may be able to draw on the comfort of a close family, or distract themselves with the routine of work. If you’re an older adult living alone, your pet was probably your sole companion, and taking care of the animal provided you with a sense of purpose and self-worth.
Stay connected with friends. Pets, dogs especially, can help seniors meet new people or regularly connect with friends and neighbors while out on a walk or in the dog park. Having lost your pet, it’s important that you don’t now spend day after day alone. Try to spend time with at least one person every day.Â Regular face-to-face contact can help you ward off depression and stay positive. Call up an old friend or neighbor for a lunch date or join a club.
Boost your vitality with exercise. Pets help many older adults stay active and playful, which can boost your immune system and increase your energy. It’s important to keep up your activity levels after the loss of your pet. Check with your doctor before starting an exercise program and then find an activity that you enjoy. Exercising in a group—by playing a sport such as tennis or golf, or taking an exercise or swimming class—can also help you connect with others.
Try to find new meaning and joy in life. Caring for a pet previously occupied your time and boosted your morale and optimism. Try to fill that time by volunteering, picking up a long-neglected hobby, taking a class, helping friends, rescue groups, or homeless shelters care for their animals, or even by getting another pet when the time feels right.
Helping children grieve the loss of a pet
The loss of a pet may be your child’s first experience of death—and your first opportunity to teach them about coping with the grief and pain that inevitably accompanies the joy of loving another living creature. Losing a pet can be a traumatic experience for any child. Many kids love their pets very deeply and some may not even remember a time in their life when the pet wasn’t around. A child may feel angry and blame themselves—or you—for the pet’s death. A child may feel scared that other people or animals they love may also leave them. How you handle the grieving process can determine whether the experience has a positive or negative effect on your child’s personal development.
Some parents feel they should try to shield their children from the sadness of losing a pet by either not talking about the pet’s death, or by not being honest about what’s happened. Pretending the animal ran away, or “went to sleep,” for example, can leave a child feeling even more confused, frightened, and betrayed when they finally learn the truth. It’s far better to be honest with children and allow them the opportunity to grieve in their own way.
Let your child see you express your own grief at the loss of the pet. If you don’t experience the same sense of loss as your child, respect their grief and let them express their feelings openly, without making them feel ashamed or guilty. Children should feel proud that they have so much compassion and care deeply about their animal companions.
Reassure your child that they weren’t responsible for the pet’s death. The death of a pet can raise a lot of questions and fears in a child. You may need to reassure your child that you, their parents, are not also likely to die. It’s important to talk about all their feelings and concerns.
Involve your child in the dying process. If you’ve chosen euthanasia for your pet, be honest with your child. Explain why the choice is necessary and give the child chance to spend some special time with the pet and say goodbye in their own way.
If possible, give the child an opportunity to create a memento of the pet. This could be a special photograph, or a plaster cast of the animal’s paw print, for example.
Allow the child to be involved in any memorial service, if they desire. Holding a funeral or creating a memorial for the pet can help your child express their feelings openly and help process the loss.
Do not rush out to get the child a “replacement pet” before they have had chance to grieve the loss they feel. Your child may feel disloyal, or you could send the message that the grief and sadness felt when something dies can simply be overcome by buying a replacement.
Making the decision to put a pet to sleep
Deciding to put your animal companion to sleep is one of the most difficult decisions you will ever have to make for your pet. As a loving pet owner, though, the time may come when you need to help your pet make the transition from life to death, with the help of your veterinarian, in as painless and peaceful a way as possible.
Knowing when it’s time to put a pet to sleep
Euthanasia for a beloved pet is highly personal decision and usually comes after a diagnosis of a terminal illness and with the knowledge that the animal is suffering badly. Your choices for your pet should be informed by the care and love you feel for the animal. Important things to consider include:
Activity level. Does your pet still enjoy previously loved activities or are they able to be active at all?
Response to care and affection. Does your pet still interact and respond to love and care in the usual ways?
Amount of pain and suffering. Is your pet experiencing pain and suffering which outweigh any pleasure and enjoyment in life?
Terminal illness or critical injury. Have illness or injury prohibited your pet from enjoying life? Is your pet facing certain death from the injury or illness?
Your family’s feelings. Is your family unanimous in the decision? If not, and you still feel it is the best thing for your pet, can you live with the decision that you have to make?
If you do decide that ending the suffering is in your pet’s best interest, take your time to create a process that is as peaceful as possible for you, your pet, and your family. You may want to have a last day at home with the pet in order to say goodbye, or to visit the pet at the animal hospital. You can also choose to be present during your pet’s euthanasia, or to say goodbye beforehand and remain in the veterinary waiting room or at home. This is an individual decision for each member of the family.
What to expect when putting your pet to sleep
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, euthanasia for a pet is most often achieved by injection of a death-inducing drug. The veterinarian may administer a tranquilizer first to relax your pet. Following the injection of the euthanasia drug, your pet will immediately become unconscious. Death is quick and painless. Your pet may move its legs or breathe deeply several times after the drug is given, but these are reflexes and don’t mean that your pet is in pain or is suffering.
How to explain pet euthanasia to a child
Be honest. Start by explaining that your pet is ill, suffering badly, and that you have the ability to end that suffering in a very humane and gentle way. The injection is a very peaceful and painless process for your pet. Sometimes, when you really love a pet, you have to make these kinds of difficult decisions to spare the animal from more pain and suffering.
- Children tend to feed off of how their parents react. If you’re hysterical or feel it’s the wrong decision, your child will likely react in a similar way. If you’re sad, and deal with that sadness in a healthy way, your child will follow your example.
- As long as you’re putting your beloved pet to sleep for the right reasons, tell your children that it is OK to feel sad, but there’s no need to feel guilty. You should feel sad, and your children can feel the sadness, but don’t mix guilt in with the sadness. One emotion is healthy, the other terribly burdensome.
Getting another dog or cat after pet loss
There are many wonderful reasons to once again share your life with a companion animal, but the decision of when to do so is a very personal one. It may be tempting to rush out and fill the void left by your pet’s death by immediately getting another pet. In most cases, it’s best to mourn the old pet first, and wait until you’re emotionally ready to open your heart and your home to a new animal. You may want to start by volunteering at a shelter or rescue group. Spending time caring for pets in need is not only great for the animals, but can help you decide if you’re ready to own a new pet.
Some retired seniors living alone may find it hardest to adjust to life without a pet. If taking care of an animal provided you with a sense of purpose and self-worth as well as companionship, you may want to consider getting another pet at an earlier stage. Of course, seniors also need to consider their own health and life expectancy when deciding on a new pet. Again, volunteering to help pets in need can be a good way to decide if you’re ready to become a pet owner again.
What to do if you lose your pet
When your beloved dog or cat strays from home, it can be a traumatic experience for both of you. Here are some tips that we hope will help you find your pet.
Contact local animal shelters and animal control agencies
File a lost pet report with every shelter within a 60-mile radius of your home and visit the nearest shelters daily, if possible.
To find your local shelter, search online or check your phone book. If there is no shelter in your community, contact the local police department. Provide these agencies with an accurate description and a recent photograph of your pet. Notify the police if you believe your pet was stolen.
Search the neighborhood
Walk or drive through your neighborhood several times each day. Ask neighbors, letter carriers and delivery people if they have seen your pet. Hand out a recent photograph of your pet and information on how you can be reached if your pet is found.
Don’t lose hope: A microchip reunited Kiwi and owner, Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, after more than a year.
Post notices at grocery stores, community centers, veterinary offices, traffic intersections, pet supply stores and other locations. Also, place advertisements in newspapers and with radio stations. Include your pet’s sex, age, weight, breed, color and any special markings. When describing your pet, leave out one identifying characteristic and ask the person who finds your pet to describe it.
Try the internet
Pet FBI, Pets Found by Internet, is combining databases with Helping Lots Pets to broaden the search for owners who lost their furry friends. Pet FBI, a Columbus-based organization, began 21 years ago and is continuing to help owners.
Or try these sites:
- Center for Lost Pets
- Fido Finder
- Lost Dogs of America
- Lost Pet USA
- Missing Pet Partnership
Be wary of pet-recovery scams
When talking to a stranger who claims to have found your pet, ask him to describe the pet thoroughly before you offer any information. If he does not include the identifying characteristic you left out of the advertisements, he may not really have your pet. Be particularly wary of people who insist that you give or wire them money for the return of your pet.
Don’t give up your search
Animals who have been lost for months have been reunited with their owners.
A pet—even an indoor pet—has a better chance of being returned if she always wears a collar and an ID tag with your name, address and telephone number. Ask your local animal shelter or veterinarian if permanent methods of identification (such as microchips) are available in your area.
When You Lose a Pet
There’s almost nothing more heartbreaking than having to say goodbye to a beloved pet.
After all, those special animals are a very real part of our families.
Our chocolate lab, Lita, was with us for 14 years, long enough that in some ways, it felt like she was the one of the only constants in a life full of changes. She saw us through so many major life moments that we almost lost track–several cross country moves, a Category 4 hurricane, a failed attempt at law school, our marriage, the birth and young lives of our two kids, the death of a parent and of a sister. Throughout it all, she was always there, quietly reassuring us with her presence. She made us laugh, sometimes made us frustrated, and at the end, she made us cry.
I adopted her from the shelter 14 years ago, just as I was trying to put my life together after the debilitating 2-year depression that almost killed me. I wasn’t supposed to have a dog in my apartment, and so I picked Lita because she was the only dog not barking–I figured that way no one would know! Ha!
Because while she never barked, she WAS a complete and total spaz! Oh my, I’ve never seen a dog more full of energy! She could play fetch for hours on end, and never got tired. She forced me out of the house every morning and evening for long walks in the park, and spent every weekend hiking in the mountains. She was my constant companion, and with Lita by my side, I slowly learned how to live again.
My husband and I often said that Lita was my guardian angel, sent to save me. By the time I finished my last hospital stay, I was divorced, bankrupt, and completely alone. Two years is a long time to be depressed, and eventually most people just gave up on me. I had no idea what it even meant to live a normal life, but Lita gave me a reason to get out of bed every day, and eventually those dark clouds began to clear.
Josh Billings once said, “A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself.” Along those same lines, John Grogan wrote, “Such short little lives our pets have to spend with us, and they spend most of it waiting for us to come home each day. It is amazing how much love and laughter they bring into our lives and even how much closer we become with each other because of them.”
When it came time to say goodbye, we had known the day was coming for a long time, and we had tried to prepare our kids accordingly. After all, at 14, Lita was living on borrowed time. She had lost the pep in her step and spent most of her time sleeping on her special couch. She had a good life. A long life. A happy life. I will always be grateful for the gift she gave me, for staying by my side and never asking more of me than simply to love her. And to throw that tennis ball one more time.
But even as prepared as I thought we were for the inevitable, there was still a lot of grieving that had to happen. This loss was different than when we’d lost family members. When you lose a person, there’s almost a formula for grieving—the sorrow, the funeral, the burial or cremation, the reminiscing about their lives. There are set customs to bring us comfort and answers.
The loss of a pet is different. There’s no societal grieving process. Is it as painful as losing a loved one? It can still be deeply painful, but perhaps in a different way. Not only that, but we can’t turn to the standard grieving process to cope. Most offices won’t allow you to take time off from work to grieve the loss of a pet. There’s no funeral. Sometimes the death is sudden.
When we lose a cat, dog or even a beloved lizard, rabbit or guinea pig, it might be your child’s first experience with death. This can lead to some larger questions about what happens when we die, as well as realizations about the impermanence of life.
These are big concepts for little minds, so they can be frightening and hard to understand. Your child may make the logical leap from, “If Fido (one of my best friends and playmates) can get sick and die, can that happen to my friends at school? Can it happen to Mom and Dad?”
While our daughters had already experienced and coped with the loss of both their grandmother and their aunt, losing our dog was somehow a little different for them. Did we get through it? Absolutely. But even now, almost a year later, we still shed a few tears even now and then.
If your family is also going through the process of saying goodbye to a special pet, here are a few strategies to help your kids–and yourself–get through this difficult time:
Be Up Front and Honest
Whatever the circumstances surrounding the death of the pet, it’s important you’re honest with your kids about it. Explain to your children what happened. Telling them the pet “ran away” or went to live somewhere else can actually lead to feelings of uncertainty and ambiguity. Blurring the truth in this way can teach kids that things simply disappear or leave, perhaps without notice, causing anxiety and confusion that can actually hold them back from moving through the grieving process.
If you have to euthanize your pet, some children are old enough and mature enough to be there during that time, while others, of course, are not. You know your kids best, so you can gauge what they can handle. Be careful with euphemisms like “put to sleep.” While they’ll certainly hear it somewhere, some kids can interpret it literally, which can cause a whole other set of problems.
Be open and honest with your kids about what’s going on. If your pet is sick and you’re caring for it during an illness, allow the kids to know what’s happening and understand. This can help them prepare for what’s to come later. Read books about coping with pet loss. Explain that animals age faster than people and their lives are shorter, but no less rich. We might love them just as much as a friend.
Answer your kids’ questions in accordance with your beliefs. Of course there’s some uncertainty about what happens when we die—it’s okay to admit you don’t have all the answers. Reassure your kids that you’ve done as much as you can to alleviate the suffering of their pet, and explain that your responsibility as pet owner is to ensure their passing is as painless and easy as possible.
Understand Each Child Grieves Differently
Grief and loss are complicated and everyone has a different approach and response. For some kids, it just won’t hit them as hard. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with your child if they don’t cry or if they ask if they can get a new kitty now. It’s just their way of processing the experience.
Some children might feel anger or say something about how they don’t care or even get mad at the pet for dying. While this can be a little unnerving, understand anger is a totally normal part of grief and quite common as well.
For other kids, death can be particularly difficult to deal with. Most will be sad for a time and themes of life, death and loss might come out in their play or activities. Don’t be alarmed if you overhear your child pretending that Barbie’s dog died or making up elaborate scenarios. It’s perfectly normal for kids to express their feelings through art and play. Your kids may not even show sadness externally. Instead, you may notice your family pet shows up in drawings or your child becomes particularly attached to a certain stuffed toy.
Other children might be really, really sad in a more obvious way. They might cry or feel really upset. They may even experience nightmares. If you notice a response that’s more pronounced, continue to assure your child it’s perfectly natural to feel what they’re feeling. Comfort them, but let them know it’s okay to be sad. If you notice their response seems to last for weeks or if you notice a change in behavior over a period of time, it might be time to see a pediatrician.
Allow Yourself Time to Grieve, Too
There are times when we’ve probably felt more connected to our pet than to most humans. I know I had those moments. If we had our pets before our kids, they might feel like our first experience with nurturing something and raising it. Dogs can live up to 16 years and cats can make it 20+. That’s a long time to live with another creature, so of course you’re going to feel a huge loss when they’re gone.
It’s also okay to feel robbed if their life was shorter than you would’ve liked or if they were taken from you with a sudden illness. You might feel a whole range of emotions, sadness and pain.
When you ride on an airplane, they tell you to put on your own oxygen mask before helping those around you. This is one of those times when you need to practice self-care so you can help your kids through the process, too. Years ago, we were told children shouldn’t see us sad or grieving, but now we know it’s actually important they learn it’s okay to express emotions and to feel.
If you feel sad, it’s okay to cry. Talk to a friend or a counselor. It’s perfectly normal for your feelings to last longer than you think is “normal” or for longer than you expect. Sometimes we don’t even know how deeply we’re attached to our pets until after they’re gone.
Planting a tree, putting in a memorial stone, or performing another act of remembrance can bring closure to your family during your loss. Find a way to honor the life of your pet. You can even consider making a donation to a local shelter in your pet’s honor. Receiving a thank you letter and learning how their donation will help other animals can really help your kids feel some comfort about their loss.
Encourage your kids to draw, write or express their feelings (if they want to). They can even write a letter to the pet, letting them know how they’re feeling. Sometimes it can really help your kids get out their emotions and say what they want to express. They may want to keep a picture of the pet in their room or wear a bracelet or necklace to help them remember their connection. These small acts can help your kids feel comfort and work through the pain of their loss.
If your family chooses to bury your pet or if you have them cremated, you can hold a funeral (if your children want to). The idea is not to dwell on the sadness, but instead to help them remember the happy times and provide a fitting tribute to their special friend. Yes, you might feel silly having a “hamster funeral” but it can actually bring a sense of peace to a child experiencing a loss.
Remember the Good Times
When you experience a loss, it can help to remember the good times you had. Yes, end of life can be a sad and painful time, especially if it’s a life cut short or something unexpected. Focusing on the love you felt for your pet, the happy memories, and the good times can help you move things into a positive light.
Include pictures of your pet in scrapbooks and let your kids reminisce about their favorite times with their pet. There can be a tendency to want to quickly remove every trace of their pet from the house (for your own peace of mind as well), but holding on to one special toy, a collar or blanket can evoke memories and connections.
Focus on the wonderful times you had together. You can even write down stories of your memories. Remember the time Harold escaped from his cage and you found him hiding under the couch? Remember the time Whiskers brought a live bird in the house and chased it around? These memories can make us smile and laugh. Pets enrich our lives, making them fuller and happier. Remember the good times even if the end of their life was difficult.
Give it Time
They say that time heals all wounds, and while it might not actually “heal” them per se, your family may find that, after the passage of time, your sorrow and feelings lessen and don’t hurt as much. Dealing with the loss of a pet can be complicated. If you feel you’re still grieving after a long period of time or if the experience has triggered depression or a deeper sadness, you may want to talk to someone professionally. There are pet loss support groups and grief counselors that can help you work through your feelings.
Kids are so, so resilient. You might be surprised at how quickly they seem “over it” and ready to move on. Understand their emotional response is different than ours. Sometimes, initially kids will have a dramatic response, and then move through the loss more quickly than an adult might. There’s no “wrong way” to grieve, so whatever happens, understand it’s just part of healing.
Your kids may ask for a new pet right away, which to an adult can seem callous or like it lessens the importance of the pet they lost. This might not be the case at all. If you don’t feel you’re ready to move on, explain to your kids you might need more time as a family to work through the sadness and missing your pet. Eventually, you might want to add a new member to your household, but for now, you’d like to just work through the feelings and memories.
If you’re considering a new pet, don’t feel guilty that you’re betraying your previous pet or “replacing” them. Each animal is unique, just like each person is unique. Once you’ve had a dog or a cat, you know that no two are alike and each one can never be replaced.
When you’re ready, think of the way you can offer a great life to an animal in a shelter or rescue. There are so many homeless pets in the world—when you’re ready to adopt, consider providing a home and love to one of them. Helping a pet in need can also help you work through your feelings about your loss. Knowing you’re giving a loving home to an animal who needs it can be a great comfort.
Every pet is special in its own way. Plus, each unique pet has a unique relationship with each unique child. That’s why there’s really no secret recipe for filling the void the loss of a pet can create. Some kids are “over it” right away, while others need more time and have more questions. Be aware your kids may not be overtly expressing their grief, so make sure you’re available so they can talk it out and receive comfort when needed.
The loss of a pet can be a very sad time for a family, but going through that loss is always eased when we stick together.