Grieving the Loss of a Pet: How to Cope with the Death of Your Dog or Cat
The presence of a pet in your life is a true blessing. They teach you patience, responsibility, discipline and most of all, unconditional love. Losing a pet is a pet parent’s worst dream. If you have lost a pet recently, we understand the storm of emotions you are feeling. From one pet parent to another, your feelings are justified. There’s nothing wrong with you if you hurt too much. You will heal! In this article, we answer your concerns about why it hurts so much to lose a pet, and what you can do to feel better.
Why Does Losing A Pet Hurt So Much?
The feeling of devastation after losing a pet is normal. You may feel like your pet will still be at the door, ready to pounce on you with a wagging tail when you get home. We know losing your loved pet hurts, maybe even more than losing a relative or friend. If you are trying to understand why, there’s a simple explanation.
Pets allow us to share a bond of love with another species than humans. The way dogs have evolved over the years to understand and adjust to humans is amazing. This relationship you share with your pet is special. When you share a similar bond with other humans, it is common to have conflicts with them. Over religion, money, politics and so many other things. These conflicts are the reason for emotional distance. We do not have such conflicts with our pets. They are 100% dependent on us. You may get mad at them for chewing up your shoe, but it’s only temporary. We still love them beyond everything else, and they love us back too.
Such a pure relationship and the constant presence of our pet makes their loss heartbreaking. It is normal for someone who hasn’t had a pet, or who wasn’t close to your pet to not understand your grief. But that does not invalidate your feelings.
The Grieving Process
There are no timelines or boundaries to grief. Your relationship with your pet, your pet’s age & personality, and your age & personality will have a role to play in the kind of grief you feel and how long it lasts. While there is definitely no laid out chronological process of how grief plays, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book, On Death & Dying, identifies some stages of grief.
She mentions Denial as the first stage of grieving. Coming to terms with the loss of your pet can be difficult. When you go through denial, you try to convince yourself that your pet is still with you. That their death is not true. During this phase, have conversations with people and express your emotions. Do not deny your grief.
Anger is what you may experience next. Anger at the incident, anger at yourself for not being able to save them. While anger is normal, know that the emotions you are experiencing are only a part of your grieving process. Destructive behavior will not help you heal in any way. If anything, it will delay your healing. Try to rationally answer the questions your mind is putting forth. Do not put the blame on yourself or others. We know life can be unfair, but even if there was a way you could’ve helped your pet, you cannot go back and change things now.
The questions may lead you to Bargain. You will have thoughts like ‘only if you could have a couple of more days with them’. As you progress through your grieving, these thoughts can become stressful and unsettling.
Sadness is what follows. This may be the longest stage in your grieving process. It may last for weeks, or even months. Probably, a part of your heart will never be full again. While feeling the sadness in its entirety is important, remaining aware that it is a phase you need to grow through can help.
As you transition out of the sadness, you will reach Acceptance. Life may seem normal again. It does not mean that the memories of your beloved pet will leave you, but you will now be able to accept their absence as reality.
How To Cope With The Grief Of Losing A Pet
Remember your Companion
Keeping the memory and love of your loved one alive is one of the healthiest ways to get through the grief. Frame a picture of your pet, keep their ashes somewhere special, plant a tree in their memory. Let this be an action to celebrate the life they lived, and to help keep their love with you forever.
Express your Emotions
Grief must never be suppressed. Talk to the people around you. Family and friends who’ve felt the loss too will understand your emotions. If not, you can get in touch with communities of pet-parents on social media. You should be able to find people who have lost a pet too and can relate to your feelings and make you feel better.
Channel the Grief Positively
Let it be a conscious decision of the mind, that you will not let your grief play out destructively. Eat your meals, drink enough water, take care of yourself. Grief can be very stressful and taxing on the mind and body. There may be times when you feel irritable, times when you lose your temper when no one can understand you and it may be frustrating. But know that a little meditation, music, a walk are some calming activities that can help.
Do Something for Other Animals
In the memory of your pet who lived and loved, do something for others of his kind. Feed some strays, contribute to the recovery of an animal in need, volunteer at shelters. Spending time around animals can help feel the magic they bring, even in the absence of your pet. Seeing you help their brethren will surely make your pet happy.
Helping Seniors Who Have Lost A Pet
Pets to the elderly are a source of companionship. A dear friend who is with them and hears them. They help bring about a routine to their otherwise uneventful lifestyle, give them purpose. Someone to look after. Losing a pet can be very heartbreaking for seniors. If you have a senior in your family or know one who has lost a pet, here are some tips you could use to help them feel better.
People may just want someone to listen to them pour their heart out after they’ve lost a pet. Be there and listen genuinely to what they say. There may be other times when talking about the loss of their pet may be very difficult. Learn to be alright with silence sometimes. They may need someone to only sit next to them and hold their hand. Be consistent and check on them often to ensure they’re doing well.
- Be There
While you may not fully understand the depth of their loss, try and sympathize with them. Phrases like ‘they are in a better place’ or ‘it gets easier with time’ may not be the best condolence. Rather let them know that you understand how important the pet was in their life and you are sorry for their loss. Offer to be there when they need someone to speak to or any other kind of help.
- Help Out
Seniors will appreciate your help in organizing their pet’s last rites. They may also feel a lack of motivation to do daily chores after. You can help out with housework or meals for them but check with them first. It is unlikely they will refuse help, but let them have their space too. Drop by with meals if you cannot cook at their place.
Helping Children Who Have Lost A Pet
Experiencing death as a child can be difficult. Especially when it’s their first encounter with death. It can lead to a lot of confusion, fear, anger, sadness, and guilt. Helping your child understand death and cope with it the right way is important. They may be ridiculed by their friends or classmates about feeling so upset over the death of a pet. It may translate into your child being aggressive towards them. Letting your child feel their grief and overcome it in a balanced manner is extremely important.
- Be Open
The good news is that most children cope in a completely normal and healthy way with losing a pet if the parents take a gentle, simple and truthful approach towards it.Do not assume what your child is or isn’t feeling, believing or understanding. Children not only take inputs about their emotions and beliefs from the family but through other sources like the internet, TV, and peers. The only way to have an honest insight into what is going on inside their head is to be open to them about how you feel. Express your grief to them, so they know it’s alright to speak out. This way you can clear any misconceptions they are developing at the root. Give them an open and honest perspective on death.At the same time, do not be hysterical in front of your child. It is alright to cry, but wailing, screaming and other dramatic expressions of sadness could impact your child negatively. Be their protector and do not overwhelm them with your sorrow. Also, avoid telling them how they are supposed to feel. Do not stop them from crying or ask them to ‘be strong’.Setting a healthy example of dealing with grief can help your child cope with other incidents of sadness and loss they may face later on in life.
- Discuss Appropriately
- 2-3 year-olds: Toddlers are most likely to not understand death. While you may feel the urge to, do not tell them things like the pet is ‘sleeping’ or has been ‘taken by God’. These can lead to misunderstandings and give rise to an irrational fear of sleeping or a God who takes away beloved pets. It is best to tell them that their pet has died, and will not return. You also need to assure them that they are in no way the cause of it. Do not add a lot of details. Keep the information simple. Toddlers tend to repeat the same questions, offer them simple answers every time. But do not discourage their questions. Keep the atmosphere comfortable enough for them to ask and seek information.
- 4-6 year-olds: Children at this age will see death as a change in their pet’s state of existence than an end to their life. They may believe the pet now lives in the sky above or something similar. They also tend to blame themselves for the death of their pet and may even start fearing their own death. Reassure them constantly that they are not responsible for their pet’s death. Do not have long detailed discussions, but encourage conversation and questions so you can clear any guilt or fear they may be feeling.
- 7-9 year-olds: Your 7 to 9-year-old child will view death as more permanent. They may start fearing the death of their parents or other loved ones rather than their own. Keep discussions straightforward and encourage conversation. Gentle reassurances always work best.
- Adolescents and teens: Teens may perceive death very similar to adults. But if this the first time they’ve lost a loved one, be there for them. Let them know that you understand how painful it is right now. Assure that the pain will subside and they will begin to feel better.
If your child was really close to the pet, include them in making decisions. Offer them the choice of whether to bury or cremate, or whether they want to have a service before the burial. Ask them if they want to bury one of their favorite things like a toy with their pet. Also, let them keep an item that belonged to the pet, like a collar.Let them make a decision on how they want to memorialize their pet. Encourage activities like drawing a picture, writing a letter. Involve them in going through pictures of your pet and putting them in a special album. While this session may involve some smiles and some tears, let your child see that everyone is feeling the loss and missing the pet.
When To Get Another Pet Home
The pet you lost can never be replaced, but a new dog can help you share your love with a companion again. Getting a new pet into the home should be a well-thought decision. Do not haste into it. In fact, there is nothing wrong with not wanting to bring home a new pet at the moment. It is understandable if the death of your pet has disturbed you and you do not want to go through it again. Here are some guidelines to help you take the right decision at the right time.
- Grieve your Pet
Grieving is a process that all feel differently. Some people may be ready in weeks, while others may take months or even years before they want to take in a new pet. Take the time to experience the grief of your loss completely. Do not try to immediately fill the void with a new pet. Wait until you feel a sense of acceptance and peace with the death of your pet and the grief isn’t dominating your life anymore.
- Consider other Family Members
It is very important to take the emotions of the other members of your household into consideration before bringing home a new pet. Have they all recovered from the loss of the last pet? Would they be ready to welcome a new pet home right now? Have open, honest discussions about your plans and ask for their inputs. Let the next pet be a group decision. Involve everyone into choosing your new pet, value everyone’s inputs.
- Consider Existing Pets
Pets feel the loss of a pack mate too. Getting a new pet home, before your existing pets have grieved may lead to aggressive behavior towards the new member. They may even isolate him altogether. Observe your pets, their personalities, activity levels, appetite. Once they are back to their normal selves you can consider introducing a new member for a safe and healthy relationship between your pets.
- Consider Your Responsibilities
A new pet will come in with a set of whole new needs and demands. Caring for your last pet may have become an easy routine if they were with you for years. Your new pet, however, may need training, more exercise and adjusting to the new environment. It will be like reliving getting your first pet home. Ask yourself if you and your family are ready for this responsibility. Will you be able to make lifestyle changes for the new pet if necessary?
- Choosing the Right Pet
Avoid rushing out getting the first pet you see and like. Consider factors like breed, age, personality, energy level and size of the new pet. Adopting a pet in need is always a good idea. Pets for adoption usually live in foster homes. The foster parents may be able to give you a good insight into the pet’s personality, behavior, and needs.
Like Anatole France said, “Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened”. You are truly blessed if you opened your heart and home to love and share with an animal. The time you spent with your friend will always be etched in your memory, there may be a hole in your heart that will never fill again. Years from now when someone mentions them, you may still tear up. But the agony doesn’t have to stay. You will heal, so will your family. Stay strong.
FOR INFORMATION ONLY – NOT VETERINARY CARE
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