The drive to the vet that morning held a familiar sense of dread.
Our 15-year-old miniature pinscher, Penny, had been living with cancer for two years, a disease we knew would eventually take her life. My partner and I chose treatment options with her comfort in mind, and Penny had been doing relatively well. We knew the end would come “someday,” but that day seemed far off.
Then one night, something irreversible occurred. Penny cried out in pain. Then, she went quiet.
“Someday” had arrived. We opted, lovingly and humanely, to end her suffering.
Returning to the house with Penny’s leash and collar was more than I could bear. I lay on the couch and stayed there the whole day, crying so hard I practically felt sick.
I’ve been through this before, with our three other dogs, and our cat Jonah. Each time has been as gut-wrenching as all the others. The sense of disruption, the disorienting realization that death is beyond our control, and the sharp pain of loss. These are the universal feelings of grief, the same ones we feel when a person we love dies.
I know this because I’m a grief counselor. Yet even though normalizing grief is at the heart of my work, I still hesitate to share my heartache when a pet dies. I worry about being judged for the depth of my sadness, even though I know it to be completely natural. I also know there are many people out there who feel the same way.
Why Losing a Pet Hurts so Much
We form deep attachments to our animal companions. They live in our homes, we organize our schedules around their needs, and they comfort us when we feel stressed, sad or lonely.
We take them shopping, to work, on trips, out to dinner and to social gatherings. We love them, sleep with them, confide in them, and rely on them. They, in turn, show us love, affection, loyalty, acceptance, and a willingness to listen to anything we say.
And we sometimes find them easier to be with than other humans.
Living with animals not only conveys psychological advantages—compassion, companionship, love––but health benefits as well.
Further, for many who’ve experienced trauma, caring for a pet can take on enormous meaning. A person who has experienced neglect, instability, or even abuse in their relationships may find some healing in the unconditional love of a companion animal. A person who was mistreated in childhood may discover that it is possible to raise a being with love and compassion by caring for their animal the way that they should have been cared for when they were young.
Our bond with animals is often integral to our lives, yet their deaths are often seen as less significant than those of humans. In actuality, for many people, the loss of a pet hurts just as much as the loss of a loved one.
As a consequence, the process of mourning a pet is often hidden from others because we worry that we’ll be seen as “overly sentimental, lacking in maturity, or emotionally weak.”
“Not surprisingly, when a beloved animal dies the grief is often intense,” writes S. Scott Janssen, a hospice social worker and grief counselor. “Yet, many find themselves grieving in isolation … [and] those who attempt to express their grief are sometimes met with impatience or insensitivity.”
“Social support is a crucial ingredient in recovering from grief of all kinds,” says psychologist Guy Winch, “and its absence can lead the grieving to perceive their feelings as problematic.”
How to Grieve a Loss of a Pet
The death of a pet can leave a deep hole in our lives, and grief is a normal emotional reaction. It is also an important part of the healing process. By allowing ourselves to grieve, we slowly adjust to life without our loved one.
There is no one way or right way to grieve the loss of a pet. However, actively grieving your loss (i.e. engaging with rather than suppressing your feelings) can support healing, although the timeframe for this is different for everyone. Below are some actions you can take to honor the relationship, validate your feelings and slowly transition to life without your loved one.
- Accept Your Feelings
Allow yourself to feel sad and take the time you need to cry, reflect, or be alone. At the same time, don’t feel guilty if you need a distraction or catch yourself feeling anything other than sadness. Feelings can’t be organized into categories like “right” or “wrong.” They simply happen naturally.
2. Memorialize Your Pet
Find ways to honor your pet’s life that are meaningful to you and reflect the bond you shared. This could involve:
- a remembrance ceremony,
- creation of an altar with pictures and belongings,
- donation to an animal cause in his or her name, or
- maintaining a keepsake urn with their ashes.
- Allow People to Support You
Identify friends and family who understand or share your feelings of loss. Talk with them about what you’re experiencing and reminisce about life with your pet and what made them special.
3. Be Prepared for Well-meaning People to Make Insensitive Remarks
Grief can make people uncomfortable and act in ways that may seem callous. In addition, not all people experience the powerful connection with animals that some of us do.
People may ask when you’ll get another pet. They might point out that at least you have another pet. Or, in the worst case scenario, they may suggest that it’s only a pet and you should get over it.
Consider how you might respond if someone makes a statement that hurts. Is there a person you can trust to reassure you after a negative encounter? Are there practices you can learn to help soothe your hurt or that feel self-affirming? Try making a list so you have your own self-care toolkit in case you need it.
4. Talk to Someone
Thankfully, pet bereavement services are on the rise and many veterinarians now offer information on them. If you feel the need for a confidential space to process your grief, consider joining a support group or seeing a counselor who specializes in pet bereavement.
Our bonds with animal companions can be deep and powerful, making their deaths heartbreaking and, at times, hard to bear. Adjusting to life without them not only takes time; it is aided by a recognition of the role they play in our lives, and attention to our feelings and needs as we learn how to live without them. They deserve that, and so do we.
Regina Tosca, LICSW, is a therapist at the Viva Center in Washington, DC. She works with people experiencing grief and loss, including loss of companion animals, as well as those who experience grief and trauma from their work in animal welfare.