The loss of a pet can be earth shattering and often as painful as the loss of a close family member or friend. The grief and heartbreak left in the wake of a beloved pet’s death cuts deep and should be taken seriously by the sufferer and their support system.
When we lose a pet, not only do we lose a best friend, we also lose our routine and the companionship we had with them. Much like the major loss of someone in our closest circle, the emotional pain and grief is very real when a pet passes.
Not only is the pet suddenly absent from our lives, they leave behind a significant void. Days are no longer filled with feeding, walking, playing cuddling, talking to, caring for, and confiding in an animal that was considered a loving friend or even fur child.
Since our pets also offer emotional support, help us relieve stress, comfort us when we’re sad, and even help reduce anxiety, there is a further emotional toll that their absence brings. Suddenly the warm fuzzy body we turn to for comfort is no longer there and only their favorite toys and empty bed remain.
Despite the real pain we suffer when we lose a pet, we often don’t allow ourselves the luxury of walking through our grief in the same way we would when we lose a person we love, and this needs to change.
Many of us face the illness and death of a pet for the most part alone, aside from the household members and veterinarian. We may not even confide the deep sadness and sense of loss we feel to our closest family and friends. Rarely do we take time off work and may even feel ashamed that we are so saddened by the loss, since it’s only an ‘animal.’
We may even struggle with how a pet died, especially if it was sudden or we lack closure. Could we have done more? Should we have known more? These questions are normal and can increase our stress and sadness.
Despite the feelings of loss that grieving a pet brings, we are not alone in them. Eighty five million households in the United States own pets-that is sixty seven percent of the population. Conceivably, most of us who own pets will have lost one at some point-or soon will.
According to grief specialists, it’s normal to suffer the acute phase of grief for a few months. The grieving process lasts about a year for most of us, but may last longer. The loss of a pet is different for each of us. There are some pet owners who will grieve deeply, and others who will never understand the close bond some share with animals.
However, in talking to pet owners, many of us have owned that special ‘heart’ pet that even years later can still cause us to spring tears and bring on intense feelings of loss when we remember them. According to an article on the New England Journal of Medicine, in October 2017, “a woman experienced “broken heart syndrome”—a condition in which the response to grief is so severe the person exhibits symptoms that mimic a heart attack, including elevated hormone levels that can be 30 times greater than normal.”
It is true, loving pets has the power to break our hearts yet is so rewarding that we keep going back for more. So what can we do to help process the loss?
The first step is to acknowledge our pain is real and that we are in mourning. Also, understand that sharing our grief and asking for support is nothing to be ashamed of. Crying, sadness, and feelings of loneliness are all normal. As are highs, lows, acceptance, denial, and being triggered by memories at any given time.
According to Why We Need to Take Pet Loss Seriously, Scientific American, “studies have found that social support is a crucial ingredient in recovering from grief of all kinds.” Other things that can help us process our grief include:
- Allowing ourselves to grieve for as long as it takes because each person is different, just as each relationship with our pets is.
- Seek out support from family and friends who understand and are able to give it.
- Honor their memory and handle the pet memorial in whatever way that feels right.
- Recognize the difference between grief and depression and get professional help, if needed.
- Seek out a pet grief support group.
- Express grief through writing, art, or whatever outlet helps.
- Volunteer at a shelter, consider fostering, or join a group to help fill the void.
- Take care of your health.
- Get a new pet when you’re sure you’re ready.
As pet lovers, we can also help others through the loss of their pet by:
- Listening compassionately without judgment or opinion.
- Asking questions, without forcing answers, to show that we care.
- Express our concern, “I’m sorry this happened to you….”
- Share our own experience, when appropriate, to show they are not alone.
- Asking if there is anything we can do.
- Avoid telling someone how to feel or that their pet is in a better place.
- Spend time with the person.
- Send a card, gift, or flowers.
We all process loss differently and will experience our own personal grief process. The circumstances surrounding the loss also play a role in how we deal with it. If we are also experiencing other personal trauma, such as another death, illness, or divorce, we might take the loss especially hard.
Also, the more significant the relationship with the pet was, the more pain we may feel. If we live alone, spend a lot of time with our pet, are isolated from people due to illness, a move, or other life transition, or the loss is sudden and unexpected, it may be harder to process.
It is important to remember that losing a pet can be just as heartbreaking as losing a family member or friend. The relationship we share with our pets is special and unequaled. It is normal to mourn and experience some or all of the stages of grief.
The loss will get easier over time. It is important to take care of ourselves, our family, other pets, as well as remember the special love we shared with our best friend. If it seems impossible to get through on your own, it’s time to reach out for help.
Please share this article with your pet loving family and friends.