For children, a beloved pet's passing is often their first experience with significant loss. The powerful feelings of sadness and aloneness that frequently occur after the death of a pet can be difficult for a young person to process.
For adults, the grief can seem almost unbearable. This is particularly true for pet owners who didn't fully understand the depth of the bond they shared with their dog, cat or other animal companion.
Many of us don't anticipate how devastating it can be to lose a non-human family member. Pet owners are often embarrassed by how overwhelmed they feel at their loss – especially in the presence of people who've never shared a special connection with an animal.
If you or someone you know is mourning the death of a pet understand that whatever you're feeling, to whatever degree, is normal and expected. Acknowledging your feelings – allowing them -- is the only healthy way to progress through your grief.
Ultimately you will come to accept your loss and find the strength to move on from it.
The role companion animals play in the lives of their owners has expanded and deepened over the last few decades.
There seems to be a link between the fading away of the traditional nuclear family, the isolation created by the online world, and the elevated status pets have assumed in the lives of so many people.
Advances in understanding the powerful human-animal bond have also led to an increase in the use of therapy animals for children, the elderly, shut-ins and people with chronic illness. The attachment between therapy animal owners and their pets is often stronger and more enduring than many human-human relationships.
The Process of Grief
When a beloved pet dies, members of his family can expect to move in and out and back and forth through the five stages of grief in much the same way they would if a human family member passed away.
Those five stages, a framework originally described by Elisabeth Kűbler-Ross whose pioneering work on the subject of death and dying is required reading in most medical, nursing, psychiatry and theology programs, are:
Denial is a stage many pet owners travel through after a pet has been diagnosed with a terminal illness.
Denial is your mind’s way of temporarily protecting you from information that is simply too painful to accept at the moment you hear it.
In the short term, denial can help you steel yourself to gradually acknowledge the fact your beloved animal is reaching the end of his life. However, if denial persists, it can rob you of the ability to prepare emotionally for the inevitable.
Taken to extremes, denial can prevent you from seeking medical help for your sick pet. It can also prompt you to prolong the suffering of a dying animal, which is not something you want to look back on with regret for the rest of your own life.
So while denial can be a useful temporary defense mechanism which allows you to deal with a painful situation on your own terms, it’s important to move beyond it and be realistic about what is happening to your pet, and how you feel about it.
Feelings of anger, either at the news your pet is dying or after she is gone, is another technique your mind employs to distract you from the pain you’re not yet prepared to experience.
You might resent your pet’s veterinarian because you perceive he didn’t do enough, or he didn’t do it faster – vets are a common target for the anger owners feel at the loss of their pets.
You might be mad at the disease that has taken your animal, or the drugs or other treatment your pet wasn’t strong enough to survive.
You might be full of rage for the driver of the car that hit your animal, or the aggressive dog that attacked and killed yours.
You may also feel angry at yourself for not doing more to prevent your pet’s illness or death. Unresolved anger directed inward often turns into feelings of guilt and regret.
It’s important to understand most of us, most of the time, are doing the best we know how to do. That’s why feelings of guilt and regret, while very common after the death of a pet, only serve to prolong your misery.
We learn as we live. The best any of us can do is to apply the lessons of the past to our lives going forward. If you feel you could have done a better job caring for a pet that has passed, what better way to honor him than to use that knowledge to improve the quality of life for a current or new furry family member?
As with denial, it’s important to move through feelings of anger, guilt and regret at the loss of a pet. You don’t want to get stuck at any phase in the grief process, as the only way to recover from loss is to put one foot in front of the other until you’ve traveled the entire distance.
In the bargaining stage, pet owners might try to make “deals” with a higher power to forestall death. For example, the owner of a terminally ill pet may ask the heavens to shorten his own life in return for more time with his dying animal.
Bargaining can also take the form of deal-making with oneself or even the dying pet in a desperate bid to pre-empt the inevitable.
Depression typically precedes the final stage of grief, which is acceptance.
Sadness and emptiness are often accompanied by a feeling of being weighed down with the heaviness of grief. It’s a physical sensation that can be frightening and at times seem intolerable.
As painful as this stage can be, it is the one you must reach in order to move through and past the loss of a dearly loved pet. The feelings in this stage are what the prior grief stages of denial, anger and bargaining aim to protect you from.
The depression stage of grief is the one most crucial for your healing. Too many people try to circumvent the painful feelings at this stage of the process, but feel them you must in order to reach acceptance and recovery from your loss.
Death is a function of life, and the painful feelings that come with it are not meant to be avoided.
Depression, like the stages that precede it, is only helpful if you travel through it toward acceptance. Getting stuck at this stage can move you from necessary feelings of grief and sadness to a level of despondency that requires professional intervention.
The final stage of the grief process is acceptance. It’s the point at which your “new normal” no longer feels new – you’ve integrated the loss of your pet into your lifestyle.
When you think of your pet, you experience fond memories rather than the pain of her passing.
Acceptance of the death of your pet isn’t a joyous stage. You shouldn’t expect to feel happy, but you can look forward to a sense of calm as you come to terms with the fact of your pet’s mortality.
Each of us experiences death and the grieving process differently. How deeply and how long you mourn will depend on many factors, including:
- Your age
- The circumstances of your pet’s death
- The relationship you and other family members shared with your pet
- Other stressful events or losses around the time of your pet’s passing
Tips for Helping Children Cope
Children tend to move through grief more quickly than adults, especially when the subject is dealt with honestly and patiently. Prepare for your child to return to the subject again and again until she has sorted things out for herself.
- Don’t apply spin. Discuss death honestly, without inadvertently instilling fear in your child about (for example), God (“God took your cat”), sleep (“Your dog was put to sleep”), or your veterinarian (“Dr. Smith sent Fluffy to heaven”). Don’t try to ease the blow by using words that make death seem like a temporary condition.
- Encourage open discussion. Make it safe and comfortable for your child to ask questions, talk freely, and share his feelings about the death of his pet.
- Tell your child’s teacher, sitter or daycare worker. Make sure any other caretakers in your child’s daily life are aware of the death of her pet. Let them know how you’re handling the situation so everyone involved with your child is aware and on the same page.
Should I Get Another Pet?
Like the grief process, the decision of whether and when to bring another pet into the family is a highly individual one.
When a dearly loved companion animal dies, most people want only to have their pet back with them again. The thought of a “replacement pet” is incomprehensible to many who’ve just lost an animal.
Other folks begin an immediate search for a new four-legged family member to bring into the fold.
In my experience, people who share their lives with animals are compelled to do so no matter how many times their hearts break at the passing of a much loved pet.
What’s important is not so much the timing as the consensus of family members and the ability of everyone to view the new pet as an individual.
Especially if the new guy is the same breed or very similar in appearance to the deceased pet, it’s easy to have expectations of a new furry family member that she may or may not be able to live up to.
For information on end-of-life pet services like euthanasia, burial, cremation, urns and other memorials, visit Loving Memorial Pet Care, an organization I recommend to my Natural Pet animal hospital clients in the Chicago area. Or look for a provider of similar services in your area.