It's never easy to say goodbye to our family pets, whether it's through illness, injury or euthanasia. They are special friends that have worked their way into our hearts, given us unconditional love, and trusted us to take care of them throughout their lives. When they leave us, we need to journey through the grief process.
The traditional stages of grief include denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Even though they're described as stages, they're not meant to be experienced in a logical or orderly fashion, with defined beginnings or endings. All five stages can be experienced over a period of days, weeks, months and years; even after you've moved on, some stages can resurface when triggered by a memory or an event.
Grief is a personal experience, but you don't have to go through it alone. If you look around the internet, you'll find many resources that can help. Here are a few links to get you started:
American Veterinary Medical Association
Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement
Pet Loss Grief Website
Pet Loss Website
Michigan State University Pet Loss Hotline
Grieving Your Pet
Many people are surprised by the depth of their grief when an animal companion disappears, dies, receives a terminal diagnosis, or even just begins to show obvious signs of aging.
But when you think about it more deeply, it’s not such a surprise at all. Our animals are intricately woven into the very fabric of our lives. We see them every day, feed them, walk them, take care them, create rituals with them, talk about them, talk to them, worry about them, share pictures of them…the ways in which we interact with them every day are too numerous to list. In a recent survey, 38% of pet owner respondents said they spend more time with their animal than they do with any human being. Our animals are intimately entangled in our daily lives.
So it follows that our grief at losing them runs deep and lasts long (and this holds true for anticipatory grief as well). And because there are very few socially endorsed rituals around grieving a pet, this can be a lonely road to walk. Here are some tips to help you on your journey.
1. Your grief may be more difficult, and last longer, than you would ever have imagined. There’s no timeline for grief, and you may find that it pops up for months or even years, although not with the same depth or intensity as in the early days. That is totally normal, and nothing to worry about as long as it’s not consistently interfering with your daily functioning. If you find that you aren’t able to live your life fully because of it, then it’s time to seek professional help.
2. It’s good to talk about it, but do keep in mind that not everyone can be with a griever. The raw emotion can be frightening. And then, of course, there are those that aren’t “pet people” and can’t understand pet grief. Seek out one or two folks who do understand, and can let you talk and be sad without trying to fix it. These may not be the people you think they’ll be. Grievers often find sympathetic ears in unexpected places. So look for those who “get it” (it will be easy to tell who they are), and try not to be angry with those who don’t.
3. Allow yourself to express your grief. You may need to cry, pound pillows, take a day off from work, eat chocolate or fast food for dinner, watch movies guaranteed to make you cry, or engage in other grief behaviors that are your chosen form of expression. Just make sure you don’t do anything that may be harmful to yourself or others, and then give your grief its voice. Remember, grief doesn’t disappear if you ignore it or push it away; in fact, that will make the process longer and harder. So go ahead and scream or cry or overindulge a little. This is a legitimate grief and deserves expression.
4. There are many symptoms of grief. Most of us are familiar with the most common symptoms of grief. We expect to be sad and teary, to lose our appetites (or overeat) and to have trouble sleeping (or sleep too much). But there are many other symptoms of grief that are less easily recognizable. These include irritability, the desire to make sweeping life changes, and difficulty concentrating on daily tasks. Physical symptoms of grief may include flu-like symptoms, shortness of breath, and even chest pain. You may also experience spiritual symptoms such as questioning your belief in God if you were a believer, or finding new belief if you weren’t. Grief wears many faces, so if you find yourself feeling physically, emotionally, intellectually or spiritually different than you used to, your grief may be expressing itself through one of these avenues.
5. Remember that children grieve too. It’s very important to allow your kids to grieve, and let them see you grieving, so that they know it’s okay. When you speak with them about the death, be simple and direct. Tell them as much as you think they can absorb, which of course will be different at different ages. Let them participate in the rituals you set up in whatever ways they seem comfortable with. They may want to help plan a funeral, make a memento, or even be present if you are euthanizing the pet. You know your child best, so be guided by that understanding when you talk to them about the death. Stay away from phrases like “Fluffy’s gone to sleep” or “Fido’s in a better place”. Children are literal. You don’t want them to become afraid of going to sleep, or to run away looking for Fido’s better place. Explain that Fluffy or Fido is gone, and won’t be back, but is pain free and happy. Questions of death can be difficult to answer, so if you need help, consider consulting a therapist or grief support counselor. There are also several excellent books that offer suggestions on how to talk to children about death. And, of course, an extra dose of love as they grieve will always be welcome.
6. Your other animals may grieve. If you have other animals, they may very well grieve their departed friend. Animal behaviorists are divided on this subject; although most do agree that we may see behavioral changes in one animal after a close friend or relative dies, they do not necessarily attribute these changes to “grief”. However, we don’t need to worry about whether animal grief has been scientifically proven. If you do have other animals, keep an eye on them to make sure they stay healthy, and continue to eat, sleep and play after the death of their pal. Pets thrive on routine, so maintain your normal schedules and habits as much as you possibly can. And, just as with your human children, giving them some extra love during this time will bring comfort to them and to you.
7. Create simple rituals to acknowledge your grief. We have many rituals designed to help with grief over humans – funerals, memorials, people coming to visit, friends offering all kinds of help, and even paid time off from work. There are few such rituals for those grieving a beloved animal companion, but you can easily create your own. A simple candle lighting ceremony, with or without friends, can be very comforting. Framing a picture of Fluffy or Fido and placing it where you’ll see it each day reminds you to take a few seconds out of your day to connect with your pet. You can also make a contribution in his name, journal or write a poem about her, make him a focus of your meditation. There are many ways to honor your pet, and you can invite others to share them if you wish. Continue them for as long as it feels right.
8. Healing is a process that takes time and patience. At first, thinking about your pet will bring only tears. At some point, it will bring smiles through the tears. And eventually, it will bring smiles with gratitude for having known him or her. You can’t rush the process, but you can notice the healing signs along the way. There’s the day you enjoy the sunshine without tearing up because Fluffy used to stretch out in that sunbeam. Or the first time you walk past Fido’s picture and smile instead of crying, or the morning you wake up and don’t get that sick feeling when you remember he’s gone. These are the signs that healing is happening. Take note of them and find comfort in them.
9. You may find that you miss having an animal, but aren’t ready to commit to a new one. In that case, consider fostering, or volunteering your time to a pet rescue. Those are great ways to test-drive a new pet relationship while doing some real good for animals who need some loving care.
10. There is support available. There was a time when people grieving animals truly had nowhere to turn, but that is beginning to change. There are now animal chaplains, pet cemeteries, bereavement counselors specializing in pet loss, and a host of online peer support groups. You can seek out any of those by Googling the term you’re looking for.