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Navigating the Loss of a Pet: Healing Amidst Grieving

A man and dog embrace outdoors

Owning a pet is a uniquely enriching experience, full of joy, companionship and unconditional love. Often, we grow up together, whether we’re children or adults. They quickly become integral members of our families. 

Beyond their playful antics and unwavering loyalty, pets can improve our mental health and overall well-being. They bring immeasurable joy into our lives by enriching our daily experiences and offering companionship, which can alleviate feelings of loneliness and stress. 

However, with the joy of pet ownership comes the inevitable reality of eventually losing a pet. When a beloved pet passes away, it leaves a profound emptiness that can be difficult to bear. Grieving pet owners go through a complex journey of emotions as they come to terms with their loss. This process highlights the deep connection between humans and animals, underscoring the significance of our bond with our pets.

Why is losing a pet so hard?

The loss of a pet is not just the absence of a furry friend; it’s the departure of a cherished family member.

According to Kelsey French, Ph.D. and clinical psychologist at Family Care Center, “When the family dog dies, we are reminded of important life events attached to the dog’s lifespan. For example, as we recall our children playing with the dog, children who are now grown, the pet’s death reminds us of the poignancy of the passage of time.”

It’s not uncommon for individuals to experience a profound sense of grief and emptiness, grappling with the absence of their loyal confidant. The depth of this grief is a testament to the profound impact pets have on our lives, making the process of grieving a pet like mourning the loss of a dear friend or family member.

What are some ways to cope with the feelings of pet loss?

Honor your pet’s memory

After losing a beloved pet, it is helpful to remember details about the positive life you created for the pet. Then, try to do symbolic things to honor and remember them. Dr. French suggests creating a scrapbook or a garden marker or perhaps contributing to a local shelter in the pet’s name. 

Seek support from others

Reach out to friends, family members, or pet loss support groups. Sharing your feelings with others who have experienced pet loss can provide comfort and validation.

Prefer to talk on the phone? Call the Pet Compassion Careline, which provides 24/7 grief support with trained pet grief counselors.

Write in a journal

Write about your feelings or write a letter to your pet about everything you’d like to say to them or how you’d have liked spending your last day with them. Journaling is good for your mental health and can provide a therapeutic outlet for processing your emotions during this difficult time.

Maintain routine

Stick to a daily routine as much as possible, as this can provide stability during a tumultuous time. Maintaining familiar activities can also help to distract from feeling sad. Remember not to suppress tears or sadness, as it can prolong grief.

When should someone seek grief therapy if they’re struggling with pet loss?

“If the owner feels unable to move past the grief after a few days or weeks following the pet’s passing, grief therapy should be considered,” said Dr. French. “For instance, if they can’t get to work or cannot reasonably control their emotions, it may be helpful to find a counselor. The pet’s death may have triggered deeper symbolic themes attached to that relationship.” 

For some pet owners, their relationship with their pets is so primary that their death can be disorienting to their “purpose in life.” While this is rare, individuals prone to suicidal ideation may feel that their one last role on earth has been removed after a pet’s death, and their role as caretakers is over.  

For these individuals, the pet then may have served as a protective relationship, protecting them against considering suicide because of the responsibility they feel towards their animal. Once the pet dies, they may feel they have no purpose. Like any episode of suicidal ideation, it represents a distortion of thinking and interpreting circumstances, and it is important to seek professional help immediately.

Call or text 988 to receive free and confidential support.

How do you know when it’s time to get another pet?

There is no correct answer to when to get a “replacement pet.” Still, the first order of business is probably to not think of a new pet as a replacement.

“A new pet does not indicate any disloyalty to the deceased pet’s memory,” said Dr. French. “If that’s what it feels like, allow yourself time to grieve and think that question through. Once an owner has grieved, a more relevant question is: ‘Will a pet enrich my life now?'”

The process of grieving the loss of a pet

It’s important to remember that the grief process isn’t straightforward. You might be moving through its stages in a zigzag rather than a straight line. Sometimes, when you think you’re starting to feel a little better, a wave of grief can crash over you once again. This journey often includes feelings of denial, anger, guilt or shame, eventually leading to a cascade of emotions.

Once these initial reactions begin to fade, the heart of grief sets in. It’s a deep sadness, sometimes leading to withdrawal or depression. But as time passes, acceptance slowly takes hold. It’s not about forgetting or moving on from your friend. Instead, it’s about finding peace with the fact that they’re no longer with you and, eventually, being able to smile at the memories you shared together.

This information was reviewed and approved by Kelsey French, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and owner of 13-year-old Dasher, the largest Golden Retriever known to man (3/6/24).

Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash