Losing a beloved friend or family member can be an emotionally intense and difficult experience. During such a time it’s important to acknowledge your grief and process it by actively mourning your loss. PugetPets knows this is no less true when you experience the loss of a friend or family member of another species. Someone who loses an animal companion may face additional stresses in the form of judgments from family and society about the relative value of the life lost, messages that the grieving individual should “get over it,” that “it was just a cat” or “just a dog,” and even emotional conflicts with their spiritual beliefs or those of family members.
Grief is as individual as each one of us, and there is no checklist of experiences or actions the grieving person should expect. But keeping the points below in mind can be helpful during a process of active mourning or in supporting a person who has suffered the loss of a dear pet.
We are accustomed to accepting social judgments that grief over an animal is “sentimentalism” or even that feeling such a loss too deeply indicates a disregard for human life. Remember that you don’t have a finite quantity of love to give. You can give as much love to your animal companion and his or her memory as you want and still have plenty for others. Acknowledge the depth of your bond with your pet and know that it’s okay for you to be deeply affected by your loss. Pushing aside or repressing your feelings of sorrow and loss in order to make others more comfortable will only make the grieving process more difficult on you.
Embracing the memories of your time with your animal companion can be a painful, but also healing step. Spend time with photos, write a tribute or poem about your animal companion, or write a letter recalling your time together. Construct a memorial and/or conduct a service for your pet. A memorial may be simply flowers and your pet’s favorite toys or it may involve a more lasting structure, such as a cairn, stone marker or special garden plot. This isn’t an activity solely for children. Adults also benefit from taking concrete physical actions to pay their respects. If you don’t have children to help you through this, try allowing yourself to think as you would have when you were a child. Don’t be afraid of appearing “silly” for honoring your animal companion.
Losing a pet may be a child’s first experience with death. Kids may experience anger, blaming themselves, their parents, or the veterinarian for not saving their animal friend. They may feel frightened that others they love might be taken from them.
It may be tempting to try to protect a child from the reality of death by saying their pet ran away. This is really a way of protecting yourself from your child’s grief, and it will likely cause your child to expect the pet’s return, worry constantly for the pet’s safety, and feel betrayed after discovering the truth. Explain the reality of death to your child, drawing from your own particular spiritual beliefs, if any. Know that children often handle a difficult truth better than an easy lie. Give expression to your own grief, rather than trying to be “tough” for your child. This can reassure your child that sadness is natural and help them work through their feelings constructively.
Coping with the loss of a pet can be especially hard for elder persons. They often are accustomed to experiencing losses all around them, from the loss of friends and family to the loss of independence and a sense of purpose. Animals can offer important support and companionship at this stage of a person’s life. For this reason, a pet’s death may prove especially painful, triggering memories of other losses and serving as a reminder of mortality. The decision to get another pet may be complicated by the possibility that the pet may outlive the guardian. In addition, the person’s physical and financial ability to care for a new pet may be compromised, compounding the senior’s sense of loneliness and isolation.
If you are a senior or are supporting a senior through the loss of a pet, take immediate steps to cope with the loss and regain a sense of purpose. Interactions with friends and family, calling a pet loss support hotline, or volunteering at a local animal shelter are some steps you can take. If you are debating getting another pet, consider providing foster care to shelter pets or adopting an elder pet.
Some spiritual and religious traditions have strong beliefs about animals and afterlife. Others do not. During your grieving process, you may find yourself questioning your beliefs regarding pets and the afterlife. Many people around you will also have their own opinions. It is important during this time for you to find the answers that are right for you and your personal beliefs. Being honest with yourself and allowing yourself to feel conflicted is often the first step towards arriving at a place that is truly comfortable for you.
If you have a terminally ill animal companion and are needing to make end-of-life decisions on his or her behalf, Pet Loss at Home provides guidance and in-home euthanasia by compassionate licensed veterinarians. They also offer cremation services and a free clay paw print and fur clipping upon request. Several pet loss support hotlines, notably one provided by the ASPCA, are available for those needing support. Visit Seattle Animal Shelter’s foster care page to learn more about being a temporary, foster home for shelter animals or their volunteer page to find out about other ways to get involved with pets in need. If you are thinking about adopting an elder pet, you can contact the Seattle Animal Shelter for availability or visit Old Dog Haven or another organization, such as Seattle Area Feline Rescue or PetFinder.com.
More in-depth guidance on how to deal with the death of a pet, including resources specifically for children, is available from renowned grief counselor, Dr. Alan Wolfelt, and the Center for Loss and Life Transition. PugetPets provides a complimentary copy of one of Dr. Wolfelt’s booklets to clients who lose an animal companion and also makes a small donation to the client’s animal charity of choice.