Coping with the Loss of a Pet

When a person you love dies, it's natural to feel sorrow, express grief, and expect friends and family to provide understanding and comfort. Unfortunately, the same doesn't always hold true if the one who died was your companion animal. Many consider grieving inappropriate for someone who has lost "just a pet." Nothing could be further from the truth.

Members of the Family 

People love their pets and consider them members of their family. Caregivers celebrate their pets' birthdays, confide in their animals, and carry pictures of them in their wallets. So when your beloved pet dies, it's not unusual to feel overwhelmed by the intensity of your sorrow. Animals provide companionship, acceptance, emotional support, and unconditional love during the time they share with you. If you understand and accept this bond between humans and animals, you've already taken the first step toward coping with pet loss: knowing that it is okay to grieve when your pet dies. Understanding how you grieve and finding ways to cope with your loss can bring you closer to the day when memories bring smiles instead of tears.

What Is the Grief Process?

The grief process is as individual as the person, lasting days for one person or years for another. The process typically begins with denial, which offers protection until individuals can realize their loss. Some caregivers may try bargaining with a higher power, themselves, or even their pet to restore life. Some feel anger, which may be directed at anyone involved with the pet, including family, friends, and veterinarians. Caregivers may also feel guilt about what they did or did not do, and may feel that it is inappropriate to be so upset. After these feelings subside, caregivers may experience true sadness or grief. They may become withdrawn or depressed. Acceptance occurs when they accept the reality of their loss and remember their animal companion with decreasing sadness. Remember, not everyone follows these classic stages of grief—some may skip or repeat a stage, or experience the stages in a different order.

How Can I Cope with My Grief?

While grief is a personal experience, you need not face loss alone. Many forms of support are available, including pet bereavement counseling services, pet-loss support hotlines, local or online Internet bereavement groups, books, videos, and magazine articles. Here are a few suggestions to help you cope:

• Acknowledge your grief and give yourself permission to express it.
• Don't hesitate to reach out to others who can lend a sympathetic ear.
• Write about your feelings, either in a journal or a poem.
• You may want to ask your veterinarian if he/she knows of a pet loss support group or can refer you to one or about available pet loss hotlines.
• Explore the Internet for pet loss support groups and coping information.
• Prepare a memorial for your pet:

(1) Hold a memorial service. Let yourself and others who knew and loved your pet say goodbye and share memories during a memorial service. You can hold a service anywhere that feels right to you—at a pet cemetery, in your backyard, in your pet's favorite park, or at any place that reminds you of special times shared with your pet.
(2) Find a special place for your pet's ashes. Keep your pet's ashes in a beautiful urn or bury them in a meaningful place on your property.
(3) Create a living memorial. Let your pet's spirit live again on earth by planting a tree, bush, or flower bed in your yard. Or attach a small plaque to a flowerpot or vase in your home.
(4) Make a scrapbook. Honor and remember your pet by creating a scrapbook or photo collage.
(5) Write down your feelings. Put your emotions in writing by composing a poem or story about your pet's life and what made him/her so special. You might even consider writing a letter to your departed pet, telling him/her how much you love and miss him/her. You can post your pet's story on a Web site.

What Can I Do for My Child?

The loss of a pet may be a child's first experience with death. The child may blame himself, his parents, or the veterinarian for not saving the pet. And he may feel guilty, depressed, and frightened that others he loves may be taken from him.  How many of us grew up with parents who said, “Oh, Fluffy ran away”?  For many years this was the accepted way of dealing with a pet’s death: Denial.  Not only does this deprive children of the opportunity to mourn, many kids (myself included!) felt a deep sense of betrayal when we got older and realized our parents deceived us. Although it comes from a loving place, it’s always best to be honest with our little ones.  Expressing your own grief may also reassure your child that sadness is okay and help him work through his feelings.

1. Be Direct. Children do not understand euphemisms such as “put to sleep”. Children under five may not understand that death is permanent. It is normal for them to repeatedly ask when their pet is coming back, even after you have told them that a beloved companion animal has died.

2. Be Reassuring. It is natural for death to cause anxiety in children, and they may even experience nightmares. By reassuring them and being there for them, children know that they can trust in their family even during sad times.

3. Allow Them to Be Present. Depending on your own comfort level, of course, I strongly believe that children benefit from being present during the euthanasia process. I find children to be curious, accepting and often a very big comfort to their grieving parents! It is healthy for them to see how peaceful the dying process can be, rather than relying on their active imaginations to fill in scary details.

4. Allow Them To Grieve. There are so many ways children can express themselves during the grieving process: talking, drawing pictures, having a ceremony.  I know of other families who hold goldfish funerals. It’s good for kids to know that memories and love do not end when the body is gone. Trying to protect your child by saying the pet ran away could cause your child to expect the pet's return and feel betrayed after discovering the truth. Expressing your own grief may reassure your child that sadness is okay and help him work through his feelings.  

Is the Process More Difficult if I am a Senior?

Coping with the loss of a pet can be particularly hard for seniors. Those who live alone may feel a loss of purpose and an immense emptiness. The pet's death may also trigger painful memories of other losses and remind caregivers of their own mortality. What's more, the decision to get another pet is complicated by the possibility that the pet may outlive the caregiver, and hinges on the person's physical and financial ability to care for a new pet. For all these reasons, it's critical that senior pet owners take immediate steps to cope with their loss and regain a sense of purpose. If you are a senior, try interacting with friends and family, calling a pet loss support hotline, even volunteering at a local humane society. If you know seniors in this situation, direct them to this page, and guide them through the difficult grieving process.

Will my other pets grieve?

Surviving pets may whimper, refuse to eat or drink, and suffer lethargy, especially if they had a close bond with the deceased pet. Even if they were not the best of friends, the changing circumstances and your emotional state may distress them. However, if your remaining pet(s) continue to act out of sorts, there could actually be a medical problem that requires your veterinarian's attention. Give surviving pets lots of TLC, and try to maintain a normal routine. It's good for them and for you.

Should I get another pet?

Rushing into this decision isn't fair to you or your new pet. Each animal has his own unique personality and a new animal cannot replace the one you lost. You'll know when the time is right to adopt a new pet after giving yourself time to grieve, carefully considering the responsibilities of pet ownership, and paying close attention to your feelings.  Do not force yourself to accept adding a new pet just because someone else or the rest of the family is ready.  Talk it over, ask them to consider your feelings as well and perhaps set yourself a date to reevaluate the time for an addition.