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Beloved Companion: Grieving the Loss of a Pet

Aug 3, 2021

Debbie Vallandingham, LMSW-ASCW Bereavement Manger

Pets are members of our family

Without question, the loss of a pet can be a significant loss in a person’s life. Pets are members of the family.

We celebrate their birthdays and give them presents on the holidays. We dress our pets up for Halloween and watch movies together on the sofa.

Our animals are companions that provide unconditional love and support. And when we lose that member of the family, we feel sorrow and grief.

Losing a pet is truly a life changing event. Daily routines change as we no longer engage in the feeding or walking of our pets. Those who walk pets or take them to a dog park might miss out on the conversations with other pet owners that they come to rely on for social interaction and neighborhood chatter.

The loss of a beloved pet can also impact our health, both emotionally and physically. It is common for people to grieve as intensely for a pet as for a significant person in our lives. As an example, in October 2017, the New England Journal of Medicine told the story of a woman who experienced “broken heart syndrome” after the loss of her dog. She had symptoms so severe that they mimicked a heart attack. People who slept with their pets may find the emptiness of the bed unsettling and lose sleep. Emotionally, the loss of a pet is also the loss of companionship which can lead to loneliness and depression.

Our animals aren’t “just a pet”

The unfortunate truth is that society doesn’t generally recognize how painful pet loss can be. People may say “it’s just a cat” or “it’s just a dog.” There is usually no community support when a pet dies. Companies don’t provide bereavement leave when our pets die. In fact, many people are fearful of being too sentimental or even appearing weak for grieving the loss of their furry friend. This embarrassment and shame makes grief work even more difficult.

Coping with the loss of a pet

Everyone will experience the grief associated with the loss of a pet differently. Despite that, you don’t need to face this grief alone or without help. Here are a few suggestions during your grief journey:

Don’t deny the feelings you have when you lose a pet. Be honest about how you feel and the emotions you are working through.
Set aside time to grieve for your pet. Regardless of how it may be perceived, give yourself the time to feel the emotions you are experiencing. Use tools like writing or storytelling to share memories of your time spent together.
Don’t forget your living animals, if you have other pets. Science shows us that other pets are likely grieving as well. Dogs may search for their pack member and cats may hide or seek time to be alone. Try to keep up with any routines that your remaining pets expect. These moments of familiarity and structure can be helpful to your grieving and theirs.
Make sure you remember yourself while you grieve. You may be exhausted but cannot sleep. You may not feel like eating or remember to stop and have a meal. Try as best as you can to honor these routines and keep up with healthy habits.
Reach out for support. There are many websites and social media networking groups that support those who have lost a pet. You can also find grief groups that target pet loss.
Memorialize your companion. There are many ways to celebrate the life of a beloved pet. You can post photos and stories to social media. You can have a memorial service to formally acknowledge the loss. You can donate to animal causes or volunteer with a local animal shelter. You can plant a tree or flowers in honor of your pet.
Don’t be afraid to think about when getting a new pet is right for you. The timing of bringing a new animal into your life is very personal. A new pet will never replace your old pet. For some, they will feel such an agony that they would never want to adopt another animal. But others will feel that they celebrated such love with their pet that their need to love another outweighs the pain. Give yourself permission to consider your options when that time is right for you.
And finally, continue your relationship though memories. Those memories allow your pet to live on in you. Some memories will be happy and some may be sad, but experiencing them helps process the loss. As part of this, you can make a memory box and place their favorite toys and collars in it along with photos or other objects that help you reflect on your beloved pet. You can also find time to write down stories about your pet or even write a tribute to your pet, reflecting on the time you spent together.

The loss of a pet is a significant loss. Remember that grieving, even for a pet, cannot be forced or rushed. There is no timetable and there is no “normal.” Be patient and work to continue your relationship with your beloved pet. And remember, even if people don’t understand the companionship and love you had with your pet, grieving this loss is completely normal and healthy.

OUR FREE GRIEF CARE PROGRAMS:

While feelings of grief are normal, handling them can be difficult and painful. Talking about what you are going through can help. Call 734.779.6690 to schedule an appointment. Or visit www.askforangela.com for our grief support calendar.

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