Grieving the Loss of a Pet
Whether your pet recently passed from your life, or your loss happened months (or even years) ago; the weight of the grief you carry can often feel very heavy. In the early days after the loss, you can be overwhelmed by pet loss grief. Not only is your heart broken, but your day-to-day routine is disrupted; leaving you feeling adrift in your own life.
“Pets devour the loneliness. They give us purpose, responsibility, a reason for getting up in the morning, and a reason to look to the future. They ground us, help us escape the grief, make us laugh, and take full advantage of our weakness by exploiting our furniture, our beds, and our refrigerator. We wouldn't have it any other way. Pets are our seat belts on the emotional roller coaster of life--they can be trusted, they keep us safe, and they sure do smooth out the ride.” ~Nick Trout, Tell Me Where It Hurts: A Day of Humor, Healing and Hope in My Life as an Animal Surgeon
We know how much it can hurt to lose a loving companion; a gentle being that joyfully enriched our lives is gone. After all, many hours are spent in the company of our own family pets and we have lost many of those we came to love so dearly. Also, our professional lives provide us with many opportunities to witness the hardships of pet loss firsthand. Without doubt, we are very privileged to walk alongside grieving pet owners; they are always sure to remind us about the value of both love and loss.
Pet Loss Grief is Inevitable
"Sadly," begins the Pet Loss resources page of the ASPCA website, "everyone who cares for a pet will one day face the illness, old age or passing of their beloved animal friend." Somehow, as our hearts open to a new pet, we easily choose to forget that fact, don't we? You could say it's a trick of the heart; a willful amnesia of sorts. Yet, when they pass from our life, we remember the essential truth: this loss was inevitable. And the grief we feel can be surprisingly intense, as well as long-lasting.
The Intensity in Grieving the Loss of a Pet
In the 2012 Washington Post Health & Science article, "The Death of a Pet Can Hurt as Much as the Loss of a Relative" (see Online Sources for the complete citation), author Joe Yonan candidly wrote of the intensity of the grief he experienced upon the passing of two canine companions. He notes that although the anguish of his grief over the deaths of his father and sister was intense; when his beloved canine friend Red passed away..."somehow, and much to my distress, the death of my dog seems even harder. I haven’t felt grief quite like this since, well, the death of my previous dog five years ago."
Linda Lipshutz, a psychotherapist with degrees from Cornell and Columbia is also very much aware of the intensity of pet loss grief. She's the author of the Huffington Post blog post "Losing a Pet May Cause Inconsolable Grief", and writes, "When an individual forges an intense bond with a beloved pet, the passing of this creature may be an excruciating loss. Those of us who've never established this level of connection with animals may not be able to fathom this pain." So, how do you best handle the depth and breadth of emotions which are part of pet loss grief?
Steps You Can Take to Heal
Joan Didion, in her book, The Year of Magical Thinking, refers to grief as a passive experience and mourning as an active one. Taking that as true, part of your pet loss grief will involve shifting from the relatively inactive experience of the emotional, physical and psychological effects of loss; into taking an active role in your pet loss bereavement. In other words, you want to move through your pet loss grief, not just resign yourself to sitting in it. Here are some steps you can take to make that happen:
Work the process. Not surprisingly, Joe Yonan (the author of the Washington Post article mentioned above), chose to write about his loss to help him process the grief he felt. "I’m a writer, and I need to process my grief by writing," he said, "so that’s what I’m doing." Creativity, in all its forms (not only writing, but painting, sculpture, photography, ceramics, musical expression, wood carving...the list is almost endless) is a valuable tool for the bereaved, including grieving pet owners.
In the online article, "How Art Heals Grief" (source citation below), author Douglas Mitchell argues in support of expressive arts therapy. It "encourages movement of the imagination that we may struggle with during our grieving process...the arts invite the imagination of these stuck places to come to the surface in images, movement, color, and sound. Our art process releases the tension of grief, allowing it to expand and contract, while providing a safe container in which this process can take place. When we create, we give ourselves permission to examine all that is happening within our grieving bodies." Do what you can to bring your natural creativity into your grief work.
Establish a new routine. In his Washington Post article, Joe acknowledges the fact that Red's passing, as well as the loss of his companion Gromit five years earlier, "didn’t merely leave a hole in my single-person household; it was as if someone had rearranged my life, excising without my permission many of the rituals that had governed it." When it comes to adjusting to life without your pet, establishing new ritual patterns can certainly help. Instead of going for a walk every morning, as you did with your dog; spend the same amount of time doing something very different. Other suggestions about changing your daily routine include: run it as an experiment, commit to thirty (30) days, start simple and (of course) be kind to yourself. You're bound to fail once in a while.
Replace lost needs. Your pet gave you many things, including physical and emotional comfort. Now he or she is gone, how will you fill those needs? Certainly you won't be ready to bring a new pet into your life for some months; in the meantime, what can you do to nourish your spirit in the ways your animal companion once did? Consider pet sitting for a friend or co-worker, provide a foster home for rescued animals; or simply take every opportunity to "meet and greet" the domestic animals who stroll through your day.
Bring your grief out into the open. Joe also chose to "sit around and cry a little less and to grieve, publicly, a little more." But there can be problems with that; often times other people just don't understand what it is you're going through. They can grow openly impatient and less-than kind; effectively silencing grieving pet owners and inhibiting their ability to grieve. So spend time with people who understand your loss; people who affirm your right to grieve, and in your own unique way. Remember this: every human being, including you, has the right to grieve. But it's also our right to be consoled and our grief validated.
Refute any guilt."The fact that our pets are so dependent on us," Joe notes, "makes it all too easy to second-guess our decisions and descend into a pit of guilt. Shouldn’t I have known? Did I do everything I could?" This internal questioning is fairly common, but doesn't serve us in our pet loss grief,so it becomes vitally important for you to accept your feelings of guilt, work through them, and learn from all you've endured.
One more thing. We know it can be difficult, but it's helpful to recognize the relationship you have with your pet will continue forever. It's changed, of course, but it still exists. It dwells in your memories, the keepsakes and photos that you treasure; and most of all, in your heart.
If you're having a difficult time grieving the loss of a pet, we urge you to call us at 916-348-4000. Any of our staff members can provide you with additional pet loss grief support resources.
Yonan, Joe, "The Death of a Pet Can Hurt as Much as the Loss of a Relative", The Washington Post, March 26, 2012, accessed 2014
Lipshutz, Linda, "Losing a Pet May Cause Inconsolable Grief", Huffington Post, September, posted and updated 2013, accessed 2014
Mitchell, Douglas, "How Art Heals Grief", Good Therapy, March, 2012, accessed 2014