Coping with the loss of a pet
When a non-human member of the family passes, dealing with grief is equally challenging
Given the bond between people and their pets, it’s natural to experience a profound sense of grief when a beloved pet dies. The loss is made worse by insensitive responses (“It’s just a dog!”) that seem to suggest it’s inappropriate to grieve for an animal or to treat them in sickness and death as they were treated in life – as a full-fledged member of the family.
“Our bonds with pets are in many ways stronger, purer and far more intimate than with most others of our own species. And pets are also like our children,” says Wallace Sife, founder of the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement (APLB).
Even so, “A lot of times people are surprised and afraid to admit that the death of a pet hits them harder than the death of a relative,” says Michele Pich, a pet grief counselor at the University of Pennyslvania’s Matthew J. Ryan Veterinary Hospital. Often, there’s added anxiety and guilt about making the right end-of-life decisions, since animals cannot verbalize what they are going through.
Healing starts by acknowledging and making room for grief even if it seems outsized. “Suppressing feelings only delays the healing process,” Sife says.
Find a sympathetic ear. “Most animal lovers have other animal lovers in their lives who understand the depth of the loss in a way that people who aren’t animal lovers cannot fathom,” says Charisse Coleman of Life in Motion Counseling & Psychotherapy in Durham, N.C.
Look for pet loss support groups in your area, or online message boards or chat rooms. Access the APLB’s chat rooms at www.aplb.org along with recommended reading and other resources.
“The great thing about a group environment is people realize they’re not alone in this process and they get to see people in different stages of grieving,” Pich says. “It helps seeing that there is healing through the loss, and it happens in stages. As time goes by, positive memories become more prominent and the sadness of the loss recedes.”
When children are involved, be open and honest, and don’t try to shield them. Kids are literal thinkers, Pich says, so avoid euphemisms like “put to sleep” or untruths like pretending the pet ran away. Each scenario gives the child false hopes of an eventual awakening or return. It’s better to tell them the pet has died and is not coming back, and that it’s OK to cry, Pich says.
Creating a legacy may provide comfort and a sense of celebrating the pet’s life. When a pet dies, it’s hard to see past the sadness, but fixating on the loss doesn’t honor the pet’s full life. Donate to a pet memorial fund, plant a tree or capture memories in a journal to celebrate a pet’s companionship, Pich suggests.
Keeping conspicuous reminders like bedding and toys seldom brings the same sense of comfort as a true memorial. Usually, their presence serves as painful reminders instead, Sife says. Pack them away until you can donate or get rid of them. “Remember that memories live on forever,” Sife says, “and letting go of pain is not letting go of cherished memories.”
If a pet previously occupied much of your time and was a primary source of companionship, seek out new social outlets and ways to fill time, such as volunteering, exercising, or picking up a new or neglected hobby.
Keep up the routines of any surviving pets, including exercise and play times, not only for their benefit but to elevate your spirits.
If and when the time feels right to get another pet, Sife suggests a way to bond while honoring the deceased pet’s memory: “Tell the new pet bedtime stories about the previous pet – all the happy memories and the times you spent together.”
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