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They're Never "Just an Animal": Pet Loss with Anisa Glowczak

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Learn how to cope from local experts...

They steal your breakfast and your covers. They wake you up with a slobbery kiss. Our relationship with our pets can be as filled with love as any other in our lives. Yet the impact from this kind of grief often takes people by surprise. We spoke with grief expert Anisa Glowczak of Good Mourning Counseling & Consulting to learn more about why pet loss can be so complicated and how to heal.


WHY DOES IT HURT SO MUCH TO LOSE MY PET?
Your pet was a significant part of your life and your daily routines and was a source of companionship, unconditional love, and fun. Many people consider their pets to be members of their family. Because of the strong, emotional bond that developed between you, it is only natural that you’ll experience grief when your pet dies. The grief you feel is real and is a completely normal and appropriate response to the loss of the relationship with your beloved pet.

COMMON RESPONSES TO LOSS
Every person’s grief is as unique as their fingerprint. Here are a few of the more common ways that grief is experienced:

  • Physical symptoms like aching shoulders, sighing, sleep disturbances, changes in appetite, dreams/nightmares, tightness in chest
  • Feelings of guilt, sadness, anger, anxiety, helplessness
  • Behaviors like crying, loss of concentration/focus, social withdrawal
  • Thoughts of disbelief, thinking you could have “done more”
     

HOW DO I PROCESS AND MANAGE MY GRIEF
The most important things are to acknowledge your grief and give yourself permission to feel the array of emotions that are likely to come up. Many people feel deep sadness, guilt, denial, anger, and emptiness. It is important to let yourself feel these emotions and to express them to a trusted friend or relative. If no one seems to understand your pain, seek out a grief counselor who will listen and help you to work through the pain, while you express what’s on your heart and mind.

Many pet owners find it helpful to actively work through their grief by writing their thoughts, feelings, and memories in a journal, or by creating poems or stories about their pet. You can tap into your creativity by making a drawing, a sculpture or other piece of art, a collage of favorite photos, or a shadow box using some of your pet’s items. Some find that purchasing personalized remembrance objects, or creating a memorial to their pet are helpful. Whichever way you choose to work through your grief, just be sure that the process is meaningful to you.

COMPLICATIONS IN THE GRIEF PROCESS
Minimization of the Loss

You may find that the death of your pet is minimized or disregarded by others as unimportant with comments like, “It was just a dog,” or “There are lots of adoptable cats at the local shelter!” This is because pet deaths, much like miscarriages or stillbirths, are not openly acknowledged or publicly mourned deaths. The death of your pet is significant to you, and the grief you feel can be even greater than when a person dies. After all, relationships where such unconditional love, trust, and loyalty are expressed are rare!

Euthanasia
It is not uncommon to feel a great deal of guilt if you had to make the tough decision to put your pet down. “Doing the best thing” for your pet doesn’t always feel that way—sometimes it feels like betrayal. Feelings of anger toward others or yourself for not “doing enough” are also normal. Find ways to express your feelings in healthy ways.

Seniors
Seniors can have a fairly difficult time when a pet dies because it may have been their main source of companionship, routine, and purpose. A pet’s death can also trigger memories of the deaths of other loved ones, and awaken fears of their own. Even after taking time to grieve, seniors may struggle with the decision to get another pet due to physical or financial obstacles in properly caring for it. These of course, can further deplete their sense of purpose and general well-being. Help seniors by suggesting they volunteer at a local animal shelter or clinic, and provide them with pet loss support hotlines or support groups.

Children
Keep in mind that the death of a pet is often a child’s first experience with death, and that children grieve just like we do. Children are capable of feeling the same things you do (anger, sadness, guilt, fear, anxiety), so don’t underestimate how much they can take and don’t deny them opportunities to talk about their pet because you think it may be too painful. Be honest about the pet’s death, help dispel any misperceptions, and address their fears. Use the word “died” rather than the phrase “went to sleep.” This is very important:  younger children are concrete, literal thinkers and can’t understand common euphemisms, and they can develop fears around ordinary sleep if associated with a pet death. Be very clear that the pet will never come back, but that it is free of pain.

You can be a wonderful model for healthy grief by talking openly with your children about your feelings and about death in general. They will learn that their thoughts and feelings are normal, and that they can trust you for support and understanding (bonus: this translates into other topics as they get older!). Allow every family member to grieve in their own time and in their own way. Expressive techniques like art, crafting, and photography are great in helping kids express their feelings.

Other pets’ grief
If you have other pets in your home, they will notice and respond to the absence of the deceased pet. Pets—even those of a different species—can form strong bonds with each other, and any time there is a bond, there can be grieving! Animal grief can appear similar to human grief: lethargy, lack of appetite, low energy, and whining, that can last several days to a couple of weeks. Take time to show your surviving pet extra love and attention—this will be good for you, too. And remember that, just like children, surviving pets may not take to a new pet right away.

HOW CAN OTHERS SUPPORT SOMEONE WHO HAS JUST LOST A PET?
One of the greatest things you can do for someone whose pet has died is offer to sit and listen.  Understand that this was not just “an animal,” but a companion and a genuine relationship that the pet owner has lost. Know that the grief process is going to take time, and don’t try to pressure the griever into acquiring another pet. It’s natural to want the griever feel better, and simply giving him/her time, empathy, and support will help facilitate a healthy grief process for your friend/loved one.

SHOULD I GET A NEW PET? IF SO, WHEN?
Shortly after a pet’s death is not a good time to get another pet for several reasons. First, you need to take plenty of time to work through your grief and loss. It’s different for everyone, but it can generally take up to a year. Second, another pet may fill the emptiness in the short term, but may lead to feelings of resentment because every pet has its own personality and can never be a replacement for the relationship you lost. Third, some people (often kids) struggle with feelings of disloyalty to the deceased pet when a new one enters the family too soon.

When contemplating whether or not you’re ready for a new pet, you will know that the time is right after paying close attention to your feelings and knowing that you’re ready to begin a new relationship.

ANYTHING ELSE YOU’D LIKE TO SHARE THAT MIGHT HELP A NEW GRIEVER?
I
 can’t emphasize enough that the grief you are experiencing is normal! As with any other loss, it will take time to work through the process. Take some time to take care of YOU, and don’t hesitate to talk with a counselor if you need extra support.

Meet Our Contributor

Anisa is a graduate of Old Dominion University with a MSEd in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. She also holds designations as a Licensed Professional Counselor, a National Certified Counselor, and a Certified Grief Counselor. Professional memberships include the American Counselors Association (ACA), Resolve National Infertility Association, and the Perinatal Loss and Infant Death Alliance (PLIDA).

In 2015, Anisa founded Good Mourning Counseling & Consulting, which specializes in ALL types of grief and loss, including: miscarriage, stillborn, and infant loss; subsequent pregnancy after a loss; infertility; post-partum depression; pet loss; death of spouse, child, or grandparent; "normal" age-related losses and concerns; and losses associated with dementia. GMCC also facilitates a perinatal loss support group, and provides training on perinatal loss, dementia, grief, and other mental health topics to hospitals, clinics, and others throughout the community.

Anisa also created the Perinatal Loss Alert Program to improve communication, care, and collaboration between bereaved parents and their OB physicians following a perinatal loss.  

You can schedule an appointment with Anisa at goodmourningllc.com

LEARN MORE
You are not alone: Find support in our online Pet-Loss Grief Group.
Need some local support? Our Richmond Pet Loss Resources Directory can help.
Learn more about pet grief in this article from Dr. Sandy Barker at CHAI at VCU.