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.
So what can you do when a beloved pet dies? How can you cope? Here are a few steps you can take after the death of a pet to help get yourself through it.
1. Recognize that your grief is real and valid
You don’t need to feel ashamed when you grieve for a pet. You’re not weird – deep grief after a pet’s death is common. And this grief is no less legitimate than grief over the death of a person. Give yourself permission to feel your grief after your pet’s death. And if you do find yourself feeling a little bit of shame because of your grief, look to an expert to explain exactly why grief over a pet can be so strong.
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. “Because pets are so dependent on us,” she continues, “owners feel they should have been able to prevent the death, seen signs of illness earlier, or worry their pet suffered.” Our grief can be complicated in situations when we had to choose euthanasia for our pet. It can lead to second-guessing the decision and worrying over whether we did the right thing.
There are so many pieces to this puzzle that it’s no wonder you might feel devastated when a pet dies. So it’s important not to beat yourself up for feeling this grief. It’s real, and it needs to be worked through just like grief for a human loved one.
2. Tend to your emotional needs
As with any loss, remember to take care of yourself. 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. Grief can be so all-consuming that it can be hard or impossible to carry on with your normal life as though nothing happened. Here are some things you can do to take care of yourself as you mourn your pet.
- If possible, take time off work. It can be hard to focus while you’re grieving, and you may not want your coworkers to see you cry or grieve in other ways. Unfortunately, taking time off work isn’t an option for everyone, but take a day or two if you can.
- Connect with your support network. Take time to talk to friends and family members, especially the ones who knew and loved your pet. There might be some people in your life who don’t really understand why you would grieve so deeply for a pet – these aren’t the ones to talk to right now. Reach out to the ones who will respect your pain and give you space to grieve.
- Let yourself cry. It’s totally normal to want to cry while you’re grieving your pet. Crying is cathartic, and it’s healthy to allow yourself to do it when you feel like you need to. If you feel like you’d rather yell than cry, that’s okay too – just let yourself express your emotions rather than bottling them up. And speaking of emotions… try not to feel guilty when you find yourself feeling happy or having fun, even though you’re still mourning your pet. It’s okay for your normal life to go on alongside your grief.
- Take care of your body. Mental health and physical health can go hand in hand, and it’s common to neglect your physical needs when you’re grieving. But try to eat on a regular schedule and drink plenty of water to keep your body functioning healthily. It’s also a good idea to try to get your normal amount of sleep, if possible, and get some sunshine and exercise when you can.
- Express your feelings creatively. You might find that journaling about your pet feels like a good way to get your thoughts out of your head. Or maybe drawing or making music feels right for you.
- Follow the timeline that works for you. Some people will tell you that you should get another pet as soon as possible to help ease your grief. Others will say you shouldn’t rush it – they’ll insist you should wait a month, or six months, or a year. But the only timeline that’s right is the one that’s right for you. That varies from person to person, but you’ll know when – or if – you feel ready to think about getting another pet.
3. Be aware of how many different perspectives there are on grieving for a pet
It can help to read what others have said about the grief they felt after the death of their pet. Some people may feel just like you do, and it’s comforting to know you’re not the only one with those feelings. Others may have very different experiences from yours, and their different perspectives can help you understand and come to terms with your loss.
Here are some of the things Legacy’s readers have said about the pain of losing a pet:
- “He was so much more than ‘a cat’ to me, and we’d been through a lot together. I will miss him forever.”
- “The grief I experienced upon losing pets was such a unique kind of grief (much different, for example, than the loss of a parent at a fairly young age), and its intensity definitely took me by surprise.”
- “It has been over a year now, but my heart is still broken over the loss of my baby. It doesn’t feel like I will ever get over the loss.”
- “I keep telling the girls that we have to try and be strong. I, too, need to follow my own advice.”
- “My husband placed him in our back yard and it is very difficult for me to go back there and no one understands why it has affected me so much.”
4. Seek out grief support
Not everybody thinks of grief support groups and grief counseling after the death of a pet – we associate them more with the loss of a human loved one. But since your grief over a pet is real and valid, it’s just as likely that you’ll need grief support as it would be after the loss of a family member.
You might feel most comfortable with a support group or grief counselor specifically focused on pet loss. In this context, you’ll know nobody is going to diminish your grief just because it’s not due to the death of a human. You might be able to find a local pet grief counselor with an internet search. And you can find many others who will understand your loss at Legacy’s online support group on Facebook, Loss of a Pet. It’s a closed group, so you can share your thoughts and feelings knowing that only fellow group members can see what you say.