Grieving a Pet Loss: Why it is Important & How to Deal with It
Most of us share an intense bond with our animal companions, so it’s natural to feel devastated by feelings of grief and sadness when our cherished pet dies. Research shows that grieving the death of our animals can be just as painful, if not more than grieving the loss of a family member or friend. Such a painful loss can often feel overwhelming and trigger painful and difficult emotions. Though it might not be easy, there are helpful steps we can follow after our pet's passing, with self-care strategies that can help us process through our grief.
Why is the loss of a pet so hurtful?
For many of us, a pet is not “just a dog” or “just a cat,” but rather a beloved member of our family. They bring companionship, fun, and joy to our lives. We get exercise by walking our dog, and we socialize with other owners at the dog parks. We wake up early every day to feed our dog (or we are woken by them if we forget!), but we get a lot more done thanks to it.
Losing a pet disrupts these routines. Cats, dogs, horses, and many other pets can reduce loneliness and depression, while also easing 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.
Tips to overcome a pet loss
No matter how hard we try, we may find the pain of losing our pet never gets easier. Although, to appreciate the joy a pet brings, we also must endure the grief that will one day come our way.
Grieving is a highly personalized, individualistic experience that is influenced by culture and social groups. The process in which you might experience the pain of losing your pet might look immensely different from even a direct family member living in the same house. Yet, there are some steps that you can take to provide some nurture during an extremely emotionally painful and exhausting time.
1. Take time to release your emotion
We live in a very busy time that consists of many distractions. Those experiencing grief can feel angry that life has not slowed down on the outside due to the painful feelings on the inside. This is why you need to take time to grieve and to experience your emotions fully. 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. Otherwise, you might find yourself storing your emotions which can cause more pain down the road.
2. Do not let anyone tell you how to feel
Your grief is your own, and no one else can tell you when it’s time to “move on” or “get over it.” Process your emotions without embarrassment or judgment. It’s okay to be angry, to cry, or even not to cry. It’s also okay to laugh, to find moments of joy, and to let go when you’re ready. Losing a beloved pet is often an emotionally devastating experience. As as a society, we often do not recognize how painful pet loss can be and how much it can impair our emotional and physical health.
3. Make sure you continue to meet your basic needs
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. Fill yourself with nutrients to help your body process. Try to maintain a sleep schedule, go to bed on a routine, and focus on your chosen calming practice while doing so.
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. Thus, maintaining healthy daily activities such as staying connected with friends and other family members or doing exercises will help seniors balance themselves better in this difficult time.
4. If you have children, help them with remembrances
Many kids love their pets very deeply and some may not even remember a time in their life when their pet wasn’t around. Thus, losing a pet can be a traumatic experience for any child. Even so, we should not try to shield our children from the sadness of losing a pet by either not talking about the pet’s death, or by not being honest about what has 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 to grieve in their own way. Allow them to talk as much as they need to about their sadness. Giving them the opportunity to do physical activity 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.
Dr. Laura Grashow gives advice on how to help your child mourn the loss of a pet.
5. Do not hesitate to seek support
Although grief is a highly individualistic experience, we grieve within communities. It’s important to recognize when you need support during your grief process. Such support could look like calling an understanding family member and going on your first walk together after the death of your animal, or getting a cup of coffee. If your 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. Check out Eb’s tips on coping with loss and grief that helped him overcome the loss of his Shinji.
There are also many online communities through social media and forums which allow a safe space to express your grief, seek peer support, and share the memory of your beloved pet. Check out online message boards, pet loss hotlines, and pet loss support groups. A helping professional can be another reliable source for support to process through the pain and anxieties of losing your pet.
There's no doubt about it - the death of a pet is difficult and tough to bear. It's understandable why so many people say that the pain and hurt is just too much for them. Now, it is time we give 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.