Our companion animals offer us constant, dependable, unconditional love, acceptance, and friendship. They allow us to be ourselves; encourage us to remember to play and to relax, reassure us and relieve our stress with their touch, keep us active and remind us to slow down, help us meet people or keep us company. A pet may be considered a child, a sibling, a mentor, a friend, or all of the above at different times. They generously share their joy in the present, pulling us into a mutually nurturing celebration of one another. Their comforting presence and devotion create for us a safe haven in our hectic lives.
Though companion loss is an inevitable juncture in this partnership, we may be taken off guard by the magnitude of our sorrow. The loss of our daily routine can be an overwhelming transition that can leave us feeling lost and very much alone. It may be surprising that the loss of a pet has as much or greater impact on us than that of a relative or friend, but it is perfectly logical as pets are an integral part of our everyday lives. Each individual pet and their relationship with each of us are irreplaceable. The process of mourning allows us to adapt to this loss, to adjust to our lives without their physical presence.
Grief is a complex emotional, physical, and behavioral experience; a normal and natural adjustment to change, necessary for the process of healing. Though grieving is a unique process for each of us (both in intensity and length), you may experience some or all of the phases associated with loss. It could take days, weeks, or months. The first year is difficult as we experience each new season and holiday without our loved ones, in an unfamiliar routine. There is no correct order or time frame, but rather a journey back and forth between stages, which will lessen in intensity over time. We may have already experienced some level of “anticipatory grief” if the loss was expected, meaning we have already begun to grieve.
The stages or phases or feelings of grief:
1. Shock, despair, numbness, disbelief, denial, anguish, loneliness, helplessness, hopelessness, irritability, need to blame, disconnectedness
2. Pining and intense grief, emotional pain and suffering, sorrow, anger, yearning, guilt, social withdrawal or increased dependency, fatigue, restlessness, over-activity to distract
3. Bargaining, disorganization, despair, difficulty functioning normally, depression, lethargy
4. Reorganization and acceptance, recovery, feeling at peace-able to talk about the deceased without intense emotions or reactions, able to experience positive memories
The death of a beloved pet is one of the most significant losses of our lives. Though we know their lives are shorter than our own, we may underestimate the impact of this loss. We have the right to experience all of these feelings. Our grief is a genuine tribute to the relationship we have shared. Guilt and anger are unproductive and self depreciating. We cannot change or control everything that happens to our loved ones, but can only learn from our experiences. The phase of acceptance is not a betrayal or desertion of our pet, but rather a celebration of the way they teach us to live.
The impact of our loss may be intensified if we have chosen euthanasia. The meaning of the word is essentially “good death”. It is an agreement reached between the pet, the owner, and the veterinarian. It is merciful, painless, peaceful, and relieves suffering. It is often the most loving and selfless choices we can make for our friends. It allows us to honor the dignity of the pet and should leave no guilt behind.
Acknowledging the depth of our loss and allowing full experience of the mourning process brings resolution. Fortunately, there has been a great shift in our society towards acknowledging the value of pets in our lives. There are many resources to help us through this loss. We may still encounter those who have not been lucky enough to have fully experienced the human animal bond. They may surprise us with a cavalier response or try to minimize our loss. Repression of grief feelings will only lengthen the time necessary to heal.
Instead, what IS needed is a safe place to grieve- to feel and express pain, to obtain reassurance, confirmation, honesty, and emotional support. It is helpful to be listened to and validated, to be able to share memories and stories, and to be engaged in physical activity which helps fend off depression and feelings of helplessness and/or hopelessness.
We need to seek out those who share our understanding of the human animal bond, those who will listen and be supportive; be they family, friends, coworkers, the veterinary staff, or a pet loss hotline. A bereavement support group or individual counseling is also an option, especially if grief continues without improvement.
It is often helpful in our grieving process to honor our dear animal friends with some type of memorial, a ceremony of sorts, a funeral service with family and close friends or a service of celebration for the pet’s life.
Other ideas include:
- Writing a letter to, or a poem or story about the pet
- Creating a scrapbook or photo album
- Making a donation to a shelter or other charity in the pet’s name
- Creating a memorial garden
- Saving belongings such as fur clippings, collar, toys, blankets in a special spot
- Placing ashes in a locket or scattering in special places
- Volunteering at a local shelter giving companionship to other animals in need
- Creating an online memorial
- Spending extra time with other pets at home who are also grieving- comforting each other and creating new special routines
The consideration of a new pet may bring up feelings of guilt. Tolerating the loneliness of no pet is not proof of our love for the deceased pet. They are present in us always and have affected who we are and what we may have to offer another. It is impossible to replace an individual. Bringing a new pet into our lives is an acknowledgement of the value of the human animal bond and a tribute to the love we have shared with our pets.