“We lost our pet two weeks ago quite unexpectedly. It’s been so hard to comprehend that he’s no longer with us. We’ve been so heartbroken.” If you’re a pet lover, you well understand the sadness and longing of this pet owner, who wrote to us for information about grieving over the death of his two-year-old dog. Research on this topic confirms what many of us already know: any loss is hard. And if you’re grieving the death of a pet, the situation can be more difficult than you expect. Similar feelings can arise when a pet is lost or stolen.
For one thing, friends and family might not fully understand how important your pet is to you. And you might be surprised yourself at the depth of your feelings, especially when the loss is sudden, as it was for our reader.
As with any loss, it’s helpful to know what’s “normal,” when it comes to your feelings. Though everyone experiences grief in different ways and on different timetables, your grief might share some of these common characteristics:
- Questioning and denial: “Could I or the vet have done something different?” “Am I sure my pet wasn’t lost or stolen?” Many people ask similar questions, even denying the pet has died at all. They might also try to barter: with God or even with the pet. Though normal, this questioning and denial can turn to frustration and anger with family and friends.
- Withdrawal: It can be physically hard to interact with people the way you used to, when so many things remind you of the way things used to be. It can be hard to share how you feel—if you even know—and you don’t necessarily want to interact with others. This is okay, up to a point. Give yourself time to adjust.
- Emptiness: Your pet had become a member of the family. You knew his habits, and he knew yours. Now, that’s gone. So feelings of emptiness are right on target: there is something, or someone, missing in a very real and tangible way. This aspect of loss can be especially hard for children and for older adults, who often turn to their pets for emotional support more often than they do their peers, research says.
Psychologists offer some tips to help you as you transition between these feelings.
- Accept that it’s okay to feel the way you do.
- Find others who understand your loss. Your vet might know of support groups, called bereavement groups, for those who have lost these important family members.
- Try writing about your feelings. Research shows that can help, whether it’s a simple journal, poem, short story, or even a letter to your pet.
- Find other ways to memorialize your pet: create a simple marker for your yard, plant a tree in honor of your pet, volunteer your time at a shelter. And it’s OK to recognize events like birthdays or “adoption day” that you celebrated when your pet was alive.
In time, you’ll eventually come to accept the death of your pet and the loss you feel. That timing depends on many things. So don’t feel concerned if it lasts for months or years. And don’t worry if it lasts only a week or so, either. There’s no one “normal” way to grieve.
If your feelings are overwhelming, however, or you think you need help dealing with your feelings, you probably do need to speak with someone. Often, simply talking with others can do wonders. A pastor or other religious leader, psychologist or therapist, or your doctor are all trained to help. And don’t hesitate if you need help immediately. Call the Hopeline to speak with a counsellor: 800-442-HOPE (4673). Or leave a message with the Pet Loss Support line from the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, and they’ll get back to you: (866) 266-8635, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have you lost a pet? What was the hardest part? What activities or people helped you through it? Share with your fellow readers what worked for you.