Understanding grief after the loss of a pet
For many people a pet is
not “just a dog” or “just a cat.” He or she is a beloved member of the family
and, when they die, you feel a significant, even traumatic loss. The level of
grief depends on factors such as your age and personality, the age of your pet,
and the circumstances of their death. Generally, the more significant the loss,
the more intense the grief you’ll feel.
Grief can be complicated by
the role the animal played in your life. For example, if your pet was a working
dog or a helper animal such as a guide dog, then you’ll not only be grieving the
loss of a companion but also the loss of a coworker or the loss of your
independence. If you lived alone and the pet was your only companion, coming to
terms with his loss can be even harder. If you were unable to afford expensive
veterinary treatment to prolong the life of your pet, you may even feel a
profound sense of guilt.
Everyone grieves differently
Grieving is a personal and
highly individual experience. Some people find grief comes in stages, where they
experience different feelings such as denial, anger, guilt, depression, and
eventually acceptance and resolution. Others find that grief is more cyclical,
coming in waves, or a series of highs and lows. The lows are likely to be deeper
and longer at the beginning and then gradually become shorter and less intense
as time goes by. Still, even years after a loss, a sight, a sound, or a special
anniversary can spark memories that trigger a strong sense of grief.
The grieving process happens only gradually. It can’t be forced or hurried—and there is
no “normal” timetable for grieving. Some people start to feel better in
weeks or months. For others, the grieving process is measured in years.
Whatever your grief experience, it’s important to be patient with yourself
and allow the process to naturally unfold.
Feeling sad, frightened, or lonely is a normal
reaction to the loss of a beloved pet.
Exhibiting these feelings doesn’t mean you are weak, so you shouldn’t feel
Trying to ignore your pain or keep it from
surfacing will only make it worse in the long run.
For real healing, it is necessary to face your grief and actively deal with
it. By expressing your grief, you’ll likely need less time to heal than if
you withhold or “bottle up” your feelings. Write about your feelings and
talk with others about them.
Dealing with the loss of a pet when others devalue your loss
One aspect that can make
grieving for the loss of a pet so difficult is that pet loss is not appreciated
by everyone. Friends and family may ask “What’s the big deal? It’s just a pet!”
Some people assume that pet loss shouldn’t hurt as much as human loss, or that
it is somehow inappropriate to grieve for an animal. They may not understand
because they don’t have a pet of their own, or because they are unable to
appreciate the companionship and love that a pet can provide.
Don’t argue with others about whether your
grief is appropriate or not.
Accept the fact that the best support for your
grief may come from outside your usual circle of friends and family members.
Seek out others who have lost pets; those who
can appreciate the magnitude of your loss, and may be able to suggest ways
of getting through the grieving process.
Tips for coping with the grief of pet loss
Sorrow and grief are normal
and natural responses to death. Like grief for humans, grief for animal
companions can only be dealt with over time, but there are healthy ways to cope
with the pain. Here are some suggestions:
Don’t let anyone tell you how to feel, and don’t tell yourself how to feel either.
Your grief is your own, and no one else can tell you when it’s time to “move
on” or “get over it.” Let yourself feel whatever you feel without
embarrassment or judgment. It’s okay to be angry, to cry or not to cry. It’s
also okay to laugh, to find moments of joy, and to let go when you’re ready.
Reach out to others who have lost pets. Check out online message boards, pet loss
hotlines, and pet loss support groups. If your own friends, family members,
therapist, or clergy do not work well with the grief of pet loss, find
someone who does.
Rituals can help healing. A funeral can help you and your family
members openly express your feelings. Ignore people who think it’s
inappropriate to hold a funeral for a pet, and do what feels right for you.
Create a legacy.
Preparing a memorial, planting a tree in memory of your pet, compiling a
photo album or scrapbook, or otherwise sharing the memories you enjoyed with
your pet, can create a legacy to celebrate the life of your animal
Look after yourself.
The stress of losing a pet can quickly deplete your energy and emotional
reserves. Looking after your physical and emotional needs will help you get
through this difficult time. Eat a healthy diet, get plenty of sleep, and
exercise regularly to release endorphins and help boost your mood.
If you have other pets, try to maintain your
normal routine. Surviving pets can
also experience loss when a pet dies, or they may become distressed by your
sorrow. Maintaining their daily routines, or even increasing exercise and
play times, will not only benefit the surviving pets but may also help to
elevate your outlook too.
Tips for seniors to cope with pet loss
As we age, we experience an
increasing number of major life changes, including the loss of beloved friends,
family members, and pets. The death of a pet can hit retired seniors even harder
than younger adults who may be able to draw on the comfort of a close family, or
distract themselves with the routine of work. For older adults who live alone,
the pet was probably your sole companion, and taking care of the animal provided
you with a sense of purpose and self-worth.
Boost your vitality with exercise. Pets help many older adults stay active and
playful, which can boost your immune system and increase your energy. It’s
important to keep up your activity levels after the loss of your pet. Check with
your doctor before starting an exercise program and then find an activity that
you enjoy. Exercising in a group—by playing a sport such as tennis or golf, or
taking an exercise or swimming class—can also help you connect with others
Try to find new meaning and joy in life. Caring for a pet previously occupied your
time and boosted your morale and optimism. Try to fill that time by
volunteering, picking up a long-neglected hobby, taking a class, helping
friends care for their pets, or even by getting another pet when the time
Stay connected with friends. Pets, dogs especially, can help seniors meet
new people or regularly connect with friends and neighbors while out on a
walk or in the dog park, for example. Having lost your pet, it’s important
that you don’t now spend day after day alone. Try to spend time with at
least one person every day. Regular face-to-face contact can help you
ward off depression and stay positive. Call up an old friend or neighbor for
a lunch date or join a club.