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The Pain of Losing a Pet

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The grief we feel when a pet dies should come as no surprise. But it often does.

For many of us, our circle of loved ones is not limited to humans. Often, we love our cats, dogs, rabbits, or even lizards as intensely as we do our dearest human companions. Our beloved animals are fast friends and feel like part of the family. When my children tally who's in our family, the list always includes the 4 girls and 3 boys who live in our house. That two of the girls and one of the boys use the litter box rather than the toilet is irrelevant.

Given animals' importance in our lives, the grief we feel when a pet dies should come as no surprise. But, yet, it often does. And while society has rituals and systems to help people cope with a human loved one's death, there may be little support when an animal friend dies. 

Are you grieving the loss of a pet? Find comfort in our private Loss of a Pet grief support group on Facebook.

"Grieving for pets and humans: is there a difference?" That was a question posed by The New York Times in 2012. It followed a Washington Post story that found that "The death of pet can hurt as much as the loss of a relative." In that piece, Joe Yonan reflects on the death of his dog and his attempts to understand why his pet's death hurt so much and was harder to cope with, harder even than the deaths of his father and sister. Like many grieving for a beloved pet, Yonan was surprised by the intensity of his feelings and felt shame that his grief for an animal was so strong.

Author Jon Katz echoes these sentiments in his book "Going Home: Finding Peace When Pets Die." "I did not want to be one of those silly people who lost themselves in the lives of their dogs or cats," writes Katz. But when his dog died, Katz's grief was strong. As he researched his book, he found he was not alone. Veterinarians reported to Katz seeing people experience increasing levels of mourning after the loss of their pets. So why this intense grief?

People begin to understand why they are grieving so intensely when they recognize "that the difference is the pet gave them constant companionship, and there was total dependency,” says Dr. Sandy Barker, director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Joe Yonan agrees: "I spent so much time taking care of Red, and Gromit before him, that when each one died it didn’t merely leave a hole in my single-person household; it was as if someone had rearranged my life, excising without my permission many of the rituals that had governed it."

After Yonan's story, many Washington Post readers shared their thoughts about the pain of losing a pet:

"There’s only been one other time in my life when I’ve cried as deeply and as much as when my dog died . . . and ever since then, I haven’t been able to have another."

"I’ve lost my parents, my husband, my only sibling, but the loss of pets remains in a way only other pet lovers can understand."

"I’ve met few people who truly understand the complex emotional attachment we have to our dogs, or the depth of grief over their loss."

"If people who do not care to have pet companions can understand that a person who loves an animal enough to deeply mourn its passing does not threaten the bereaved’s ability to also regret the passing of a human life, then we can all be more compassionate."

So what can you do when a beloved pet dies? How can you cope?

Dr. Barker of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction offers several suggestions for coping with the grief of losing a pet. Planning a way to commemorate the pet (e.g. planting a tree, writing a tribute, having a memorial ceremony) can be very helpful. Licensed mental health professionals can be a valuable resource, notes Dr. Barker, and some employers include pet loss counseling in their Employee Assistance Program benefits.

As with any loss, remember to take care of yourself. Take the day off from work, eat and get plenty of sleep, cuddle something warm and furry. And give yourself permission to grieve. When your live-in companion of 15 years dies, you are bound to feel enormous grief. That your companion used the litter box rather than the toilet is irrelevant.

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