It’s inevitable but still so painful.
Anyone who’s ever adopted a pet knows that it never ends well. It’s almost inevitable that we’ll one day have to say goodbye to our beloved family member, sometimes abruptly, sometimes after a long, drawn-out ordeal. No matter how long they live or what the cause of death, the goodbye is heartbreaking. Some pet parents are additionally saddled with complicated decisions around their animal’s end of life and might be plagued by frequent what-if thinking.
Any pet parent who understands their animal’s attachment will likely agree, though, that our losing them is better than the alternative – them having to live without us. Their shorter life spans generally spare them this possibility.
Still, navigating the painful experience of grief and loss can be overwhelming. It doesn’t help that our culture doesn’t value pet loss the way it does the deaths of other family members. There’s no leave for school or work, few pet bereavements groups, and minimal cultural understanding of the impact our animals’ lives and deaths can have on our well-being. Perhaps the tide is slowly changing. You’ll now sometimes find pet sympathy cards in the Hallmark aisle. Blogs and social media accounts celebrate the lives and loss of pets and connect pet lovers to each other in their time of grief. But we still don’t see the outpouring of support and understanding around pet loss that accompanies the loss of other family members.
Processing Pet Loss
It’s important to understand that there’s no manual for grieving. Everyone grieves uniquely, in a manner consistent with their history (including history of loss), current circumstances, and psychology. While everyone’s grief will run a different course, we know that certain aspects of grieving a pet are crucial:
1) Surround yourself with people who “get it,” people who love animals, who recognize them as crucial family members, and who may have experienced pet loss themselves. They might be able to provide useful navigation. You might reach out to a pet bereavement hotline or find support through a pet loss forum or chat. Find a therapist who specializes in grief and loss.
2) Do what works for you. Some folks who lose a pet rush out to adopt a new one. Others take time to grieve before they open their homes and hearts to a new animal. Some might avoid looking at pictures and videos of their pet for a period of time following their loss. Others might find comfort in these media. Focus on what works for you.
3) Realize the normalcy of pet grief, refraining from judging your grief. Losing a pet is a significant event. Plus, our animals can be such vital parts of our day-to-day experience. Pet loss involves saying goodbye to a loved one as well as radically altering our routines – no more feedings, medication doses (particularly in the case of sick or elderly animals), walks, vet visits, or greetings or snuggles when you come home. Don’t underestimate how eliminating these routine behaviors can complicate your loss.
4) Consider if there are any actions that will help. Sometimes, people are comforted by “doing something” with their grief and loss. That might mean making a donation to an animal charity, hosting a memorial service or creating a physical memorial, or having a print made of the print made of the pet they’ve lost.
5) Allow yourself to grieve. We know that avoiding feelings doesn’t make them go away. Acceptance of your loss and of all the feelings (despite how painful) is crucial to your healing. At the same time, taking breaks from mourning and distracting with adaptive coping resources can be helpful.
6) Understand that this is a process. There’s no map or timeline for grief. Allow yourself to recover in your own way and to take the time you need. Know that it’s natural for there to be ebbs and flows in your healing. Maybe one day, you’re feeling better only to be hit by a wave of distress the next. That’s all part of the process. Over time, it’s likely your distress will diminish and memories of your pet will bring more consistent joy and peace.
In loving memory of Callie, my first baby and forever love (2001-2017)