Saying goodbye to your beloved pet is one of the hardest things to do; and navigating this experience can feel overwhelming, even if you've previously experienced the passing of another pet. Know that you're not alone. If you or someone you love is dealing with the death of a pet, these techniques can help.
Common Emotions After Losing a Pet
Everyone grieves in different ways, so no two individuals will experience the same set of emotions following the loss of a pet. Unfortunately, bottling up your feelings or labeling them as "right" or "wrong" can prolong the healing process. It's common to experience any or all of the following responses to your pet's death.
- Sorrow. One of the most common feelings following a pet's passing is deep sadness. You've just lost your best friend, so emotional pain is understandable. As much as you may want to hide your sadness, it can be beneficial to allow yourself to experience it and share it with others close to you, or seek professional help if needed.
- Disbelief. It may be hard to accept that your pet has passed. "How could this be real?" you might question. This is especially true if the passing occurred under sudden or traumatic circumstances, but disbelief can occur regardless of the scenario. It is a very normal part of the grieving process, and one that will fade as you heal.
- Guilt. As your pet's caregiver, it's not uncommon to feel guilt surrounding their passing. You may ask yourself if you let them go too late or too soon, or question, "What if I had done__?" It's natural to want to make sense of the event or events leading up to the loss. Whenever guilt arises, remember the most important thing: your pet is no longer suffering.
- Relief. When pets are elderly or ill and require a great deal of attention, it's not unusual to feel relief after your pet is gone. You'll likely feel comfort knowing they are no longer in pain, or you may also feel relief at being alleviated of your duties as a caregiver.
- Loneliness. Many people note the "presence of the absence" after a pet leaves the earth. It's common to feel lonely in your home without them there. If you feel especially isolated, you can seek support from a loved one or mental health professional.
- Urge to acquire another pet. Some people may not be ready to bring a new pet into their home for several years, whereas others might wish to do so after a few weeks. Again, there's no right or wrong answer here, so don't feel as though you must immediately dismiss this desire. Just be sure to carefully consider the decision. Opening your heart and home to a new animal shouldn't be taken lightly.
Techniques to Help You Cope
Allowing yourself to experience the emotions that arise can be an important first step in dealing with the death of a pet. However, the grieving process will take time. Amy Guertin, a licensed counselor, reports, "Some people may be able to accept the loss of their pet in a matter of weeks, while for others, it may take years. Don't feel that you need to rush through this process." However, several suggestions can help you better cope with this loss.
Consider Your Pet's Belongings
Many owners struggle with painful reminders of their pet around the home, such as a favorite pet bed, leash, water dish, or toys. Others may not feel ready to touch these items and would rather leave them as is. Neither reaction is wrong, though you should consider how to proceed.
If you hastily throw away all reminders of your pet, you may feel regret in the future at having lost these mementos. Instead, you can store these items out of sight, but save a few in case you'd like to have them later. Alternatively, a refusal to move items for months or years could indicate that an owner is stuck in the denial stage of grief. Storing some of these items or even donating them to pets in need can help you heal. Enlist a close friend to be there for support if needed.
Help Children Cope With the Loss
For most children, the loss of a pet is their first experience in understanding death. Guerin offers parents and caregivers guidance on how to navigate this. "Regardless of your child's age, honesty should always be your goal," she says. Avoid using phrases like "gone away" or "put to sleep," as this can confuse the child or lead to a fear of sleeping. Instead, explain death in plain, understandable terms.
Guerin adds, "The things that will help you move toward acceptance will also help your child. However, children aren't as adept at explaining their emotions as adults are. Be on the lookout for indications your child is having a particularly difficult time with the loss." Seek professional support if your child displays any indications of depression or distress.
Honor Your Pet's Life
Memorializing your pet can help you move through the grief. There are several ways to do this, such as holding a service, planting a tree in your pet's honor, creating a photo book, writing a poem or letter to your pet, or sharing your most cherished memories with others who knew them. This process can serve to replace the painful memories with beautiful remembrances of your life together.
Care for Your Other Pets
If you have other pets, make sure to give them extra TLC. Animals who lose a companion experience grief as well, so they're likely feeling the lost pet's absence. Those who were particularly bonded may experience signs of separation anxiety or depression. However, even those who were not close can respond to the missing companion in their life. Monitor your surviving pets for concerning symptoms including decreased or no appetite, pacing, hiding, no interest in playing, changes in mood, excessive whining, or yowling, and contact your veterinarian for personalized solutions.
It can also be therapeutic to volunteer your time to help pets in need. However, only pursue this when you're emotionally ready. You can contact a local pet rescue to inquire about volunteer opportunities or honor your pet by donating supplies or funds in their name.
Take Care of Yourself
It's critical to take care of yourself during this time of mourning. "You have just experienced a horrible loss. Be extra kind to yourself. Do what you need to do to help yourself to feel better," Guerin recommends. Give yourself permission to grieve, but continue to meet your basic needs like eating nutritious foods and getting a full night's rest. You can also add mindful practices to your routine if you feel called. Don't hesitate to reach out for help if you're struggling to care for yourself.
Many grieving pet parents find it beneficial to seek support. "Whether it's someone you know who has lost a pet, or a group, talking to others who have gone through the same thing can be cathartic," Guerin says. Several organizations offer bereavement support specifically for owners coping with the death of their pet. These communities offer a safe space to express your grief.
- Lap of Love: They offer group and personal support for grieving owners. Lap of Love also has anticipatory grief counseling for owners who are preparing for the loss of their pet.
- Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement: They provide counseling, online chat rooms, online forums, and referrals to local pet loss support groups.
- Cornell University: Volunteers from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine run a hotline that owners can call for support surrounding pet loss and pet grieving. You can remain anonymous if you wish.
- Rainbow Bridge: This online platform has a wealth of resources on pet loss topics as well as a 24-hour pet loss chat room.
Moving Forward After the Death of a Pet
Accepting your beloved pet's death doesn't mean you must let them go. Instead, it means you can finally let go of the pain surrounding their passing and fully appreciate the joy you shared. Care for yourself and take time to grieve this significant loss. Your pet may be gone, but the love you shared will always remain.