Pet Loss Grief
The sadness you feel when a beloved pet dies is natural. It is part of the pain that comes with losing someone you love. But pet loss is often made more painful because others do not understand how deep the attachment to a pet can be. Pets are members of your immediate family. The task in grieving is to honor your deep loss.
Your remaining pets grieve, too, when one of their companions dies. Learn the common signs of animal grief and ways to comfort your grieving pet.
We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own, live within a fragile circle, easily and often breached. Unable to accept its awful gaps, we still would live no other way. ~Irving Townsend
The Fragile Circle of Life
The simple joy that companion animals bring to our lives is priceless. Our pets cheer us, comfort us, delight us, sustain us and love us without condition. Our family of pets is a fragile circle of life. Dogs and cats live a dozen years or so. Horses average two decades, maybe a little more. Smaller animals may grace our lives for a year or less. We will outlive our companion animals and their deaths will break our hearts. If we continue to live with pets, we will experience this grief many times.
The sadness that we feel when a beloved pet dies is natural. It is part of the pain that comes with losing someone we love. But pet loss is often made more painful because others do not understand how deep the attachment to a pet can be. We hear, "Well, he was just a dog," or "You can always get another cat." Based on the writings of Kenneth J. Doka, the death of a pet is one type of disenfranchised grief, deeply felt by the griever but minimized or negated by others. What these insensitive people fail to understand is that we had a strong and loving relationship with our beloved friend.
Pets Are Members of the Immediate Family
The opinion of others is not important during this difficult time. You alone know how devoted your animal friend was. No matter what your mood or appearance, your pet was always there for you: always forgiving, always loyal, always loving. No wonder the pain of loss is so great. You have lost a member of your immediate family.
Your Deep Loss
If you start to question how deeply you are grieving the death of your pet, please remember these words below. They come from On Grief and Grieving by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler and appear on page 30:
When you compare losses, someone else’s may seem greater or lesser than your own, but all losses are painful...Losses are very personal and comparisons never apply. No loss counts more than another. It is your loss that counts for you. It is your loss that affects you.
Your loss is deep and deserves your personal attention without comparison. You are the only one who can survey the magnitude of your loss. No one will ever know the meaning of what was shared, the deepness of the void that shadows your future. You alone know your loss...
...Your task in your own mourning and grieving is to fully recognize your own loss, to see it as only you can. In paying the respect and taking the time it deserves, you bring integrity to the deep loss that is yours.
The Cause of Death Can Add to the Heartache
The circumstances of the death can also add to your heartache. If your beloved companion dies without warning, as with accident or sudden onset illness, you may berate yourself, or become angry for your carelessness: How did this happen? What symptoms did I miss? What could I have done to prevent it?
When Pets Are Reminders of Other Losses
Sometimes you are caring for a pet because a family member has died and the animal is left without a home. Not only does the pet become a friend over time, but the bond represents a living, loving connection to your deceased loved one. When this cherished companion dies, you may experience a grief burst: sorrow intensifies as you grieve again for your other losses.
No Right or Wrong Way to Grieve a Pet’s Death
Grief is an expression of your love for the dear one who has died and none of us experiences the death of a beloved pet in the same way. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Whatever helps you cope, whatever eases your pain, whatever brings you peace—these are the right ways to express your sorrow.
Grief Is Messy
No one can tell you how long or in what manner you should grieve, but it is common to experience strong feelings such as shock, denial, anger, regret, worry, yearning and, of course, sadness. The emotions of grief are difficult to bear, but they are all part of the natural reaction to loss. As most of us discover, we do not experience grief in a neat, step-by-step way. Our emotions are all over the place because grief is messy.
Consider, too, that each member of your family had a different relationship with the departed pet. Each member will have a different reaction to the loss because grief is not one emotion, but a process composed of many emotions. The important thing is that you accept your feelings for what they are and find ways to express them.
The Most Agonizing Decision
One of the most agonizing decisions you will ever make is authorizing euthanasia. Even if the pet has suffered a long time, you may doubt yourself afterward: Was it the right thing to do? When you find yourself questioning your actions, it is important to recall the circumstances that led up to the decision.
Ending the life of a suffering animal is the loving, compassionate, unselfish thing to do. It is the final act of caring. Your friend closed his eyes for the last time knowing that his trust in you was well placed. He was always safest in your care. In the end, you loved him enough to set him free.
The Hard Edge and Soft Edge of Grief
The razor’s edge of grief, so sharp when grief is new, will eventually give way to the dull ache of permanent loss. There will be an ebb and flow to the pain. Some days you may be overwhelmed and on other days, happy memories of your pet will make you smile. I call these emotional fluctuations the hard edge and soft edge of grief.*
Even though we may feel that the hard edge of grief will never end, mindful practices such as mediation and yoga can teach us that life is ever-changing. When we realize that the only constant in life is change, we become aware of the small changes in ourselves and dare to hope that the soft edge of healing is possible.
This healing does not occur by moving on from the loss, but by moving forward with our lives, keeping the memories of our cherished companion intact. We learn that while suffering passes, love remains.
You had a pet who brought you joy. Allow your time together to comfort you as you carry loving memories of your pet into the life you create after loss.
*The original concept of hard edge / soft edge refers to physical pain and comes from the book Mindfulness for Health by Vidyamala Burch and Danny Penman, pages 107-108. I have adapted it to the changing nature of grief.
Pets Grieve, too
If you have other pets, you may find that they are also grieving.
Signs of companion animal grief include:
a refusal to eat or drink
changes in sleep patterns
wandering from room to room.
Consult your veterinarian if your pet displays any of these symptoms because they can indicate a medical condition that needs attention. Once illness is ruled out, most animal experts believe that it can take up to six months for the symptoms of your pet's grief to disappear.
If your pet goes outdoors, it is wise to restrict unsupervised access to the outside for a while because it is possible that your pet will wander off in search of his lost friend. Your grieving pet may seek more affection from you or choose to isolate. You will most help your surviving pet grieve by showing him extra attention and care during this painful time.
Note: Not all pets will show signs of grieving the death of a housemate. It depends on whether or not the animals had formed an attachment to one another. I am certain that Jimmy enjoys being an only child after the death of sweet and shy Vincent. He likes my undivided attention.
Pet Loss Grief
How to Help Your Grieving Pets
Pet Grieving: How Pets Mourn the Loss of a Companion by Gary Le Mon
Pet Loss Grief and the Holidays
Grieving the death of your pet is difficult any time of the year but it can be more painful in December when everyone else is celebrating. Go to Pet Loss: Grief Takes No Holiday for tips on coping during this stressful season.