Many of you know that I have recently taken in a 14 year old, deaf black lab named Abby. She lived her entire life outside on a farm, where many of her illnesses went untreated. She had an ear infection that had gone on for over 8 years without treatment, resulting in the worst case of cauliflower ear that my vet had ever seen and permanent deafness. Abby also has heartworms, mammary cancer and very bad teeth. When my husband and I decided to take her in, we knew that her time was limited but we didn’t realize how limited. My three other rescued black labs are all around four years old and and are healthy, so death isn’t something we have had to contemplate. There are nights that I can’t stop crying because I know that Abby is finally happy, and her time is so short. We have been discussing our options at home, and this led me to write an article about pet loss and grieving. While Miss Abby is still with us, I know that I will be needing help and encouragement in the months to come. Most of my friends and readers are involved in the animal rescue world one way or another. Pet loss is something we deal with frequently, but it never gets easier. The intense bond that we share with our pets is almost deeper sometimes than the bond we share with humans, so it is only natural to feel absolutely crushed and hopeless when a furry family member dies. It goes without saying that some people will never understand the depth of love you had for your pet (be it a dog, cat, bunny or any other animal), you should NEVER feel guilty about your sadness. Give yourself time to grieve and then move on to more healthy ways of coping. While we will never forget our beloved pet, there are healthy ways of moving on and honoring their memory.
For those of you reading, your animals are not “just animals”, they are tiny humans covered in fur, they are the children that don’t talk back, and they are the friend that listens without judgement. For us, pets are beloved members of the family and when they die, you feel a significant loss, as you would with any other family member. The grief you feel will be dependent on your situation.
THE STAGES OF GRIEF
Like with the passing of a friend or family member, there are stages of grief that we all go through. Dividing the grief process in to fluid “stages” helps the grief stricken person to understand that their experiences and emotions are normal. Some people will quickly progress through all the phases, while others appear to get “stuck” in a particular phase, but it is different for every one. Briefly, the stages of grief are as follows:
1. SHOCK AND DENIAL-
The reality of death has not yet been accepted by the bereaved. He or she feels stunned and bewildered-as if everything is “unreal.”
The grief stricken person often lashes out at family, friends, themselves, God, the Veterinarian or the world in general. Bereaved people will also experience feelings of guilt or fear during this stage.
In this stage, the bereaved asks for a deal or reward from either God, the Veterinarian or the Clergy. Comments like “I’ll go to Church every day, if only my pet will come back to me” are common.
Depression occurs as a reaction to the changed way of life created by the loss. The bereaved person feels intensely sad, hopeless, drained and helpless. The pet is missed and thought about constantly.
5. ACCEPTANCE- Acceptance comes when the changes brought upon the person by the loss are stabilized into a new lifestyle. The depth and intensity of the mourning process depends on many factors. The age of the owner, circumstances surrounding the death, relationship of the animal to the owner and to other family members, are all significant. Recently experiencing the death of a significant person in the owner’s life can also affect how the pet’s death is handled. Usually, children recover more quickly, while the elderly take the longest. Sometimes, the death of a pet will finally enable the bereaved to mourn the loss of a person, whose death had not yet been accepted.
Grief can be complicated by the role the animal played in your life. For example, if your pet was a working dog or a helper animal such as a guide dog, then you’ll not only be grieving the loss of a companion but also the loss of a coworker or the loss of your independence. If you cared for your pet through a protracted illness, you likely grew to love him even more. If you lived alone and the pet was your only companion, coming to terms with his loss can be even harder. If you were unable to afford expensive veterinary treatment to prolong the life of your pet, you may even feel a profound sense of guilt.
Everyone grieves differently!!
Grieving is a personal and highly individual experience. You and your spouse may have lost the same pet, but you are feeling it in completely different ways. Some people find grief comes in stages, those listed above, and others find that grief is more cyclical, coming in waves, or a series of highs and lows. The lows are likely to be deeper and longer at the beginning and then gradually become shorter and less intense as time goes by. Still, even years after a loss, a sight, a sound, or a special anniversary can spark memories that trigger a strong sense of grief.
- The grieving process happens only gradually. It can’t be forced or hurried—and there is no “normal” timetable for grieving. Some people start to feel better in weeks or months. For others, the grieving process is measured in years. Whatever your grief experience, it’s important to be patient with yourself and allow the process to naturally unfold.
- Feeling sad, frightened, or lonely is a normal reaction to the loss of a beloved pet. Exhibiting these feelings doesn’t mean you are weak, so you shouldn’t feel ashamed.
- Trying to ignore your pain or keep it from surfacing will only make it worse in the long run. For real healing, it is necessary to face your grief and actively deal with it. By expressing your grief, you’ll likely need less time to heal than if you withhold or “bottle up” your feelings. Write about your feelings and talk with others about them.
Tips for coping after you have lost a pet
There is no right way to feel. Everyone handles death differently, just read through the steps below and try to find out which way helps you the best.
- Don’t let anyone tell you how to feel, and don’t tell yourself how to feel either. This is the most important step. Your grief is your own and no one else can tell you when it’s time to “move on” or “get over it.” Let yourself feel whatever you feel without embarrassment or judgment. It’s okay to be angry, to cry or not to cry. It’s also okay to laugh, to find moments of joy, and to let go when you’re ready.
- If you have chosen euthanasia for your pet be sure to see it through with them. There is nothing worse than being scared and dying alone, imagine if the roles were reversed. You will feel better in the end knowing that you honored your pet by letting him/her go while they were surrounded by love.
- Reach out to others who have lost pets. Check out online message boards, pet loss hotlines, and pet loss support groups.It is important to find people who understand what you are going through. Sometimes the people in our lives don’t quite get it. It is important not to lash out at them, but instead find others than can help.
- Rituals can help healing. Just as they do with humans, simple celebrations of life can help with the grieving process. A funeral can help you and your family members openly express your feelings. Ignore anyone who tries to tell you that it is stupid or inappropriate to hold a funeral for a pet, this is your life not theirs. You can choose to bury your pet in a pet cemetery or spread his/her ashes in a favorite spot (or keep them). Honor your pet in a way that will help you let them go easier.
- Create a legacy. Preparing a memorial, planting a tree in memory of your pet, compiling a photo album or scrapbook, or otherwise sharing the memories you enjoyed with your pet, can create a legacy to celebrate the life of your animal companion. It is something that you can look at for years to come and it will trigger the happy memories.
- If you have other pets, be sure to maintain the normalcy in your life. Surviving pets can also experience loss when their friend dies and they may become distressed by your sorrow. Maintaining their daily routines, or even increasing exercise and play times, will not only benefit the surviving pets but may also help to elevate your outlook too. In time, it is also a good step to think about adding another furry family member to your life. You are by no means replacing the lost, but honoring their memory by rescuing another life.
- There are animal support groups in almost every state. Here is a brief list of them. If there are none in your area, consider creating one. You will make life long friendships as you grieve and help others do the same.
Helping a child cope with pet loss
In a lot of cases, many of us have had our pets longer than we have had the children in our lives. Grieving can be especially difficult when you are trying to be the “strong” one in the family. It is important for a child to see a healthy grieving process for a pet. You are teaching them forever that pets are family, not just something that goes away. The loss of a pet may be your child’s first experience of death, so how you react to the loss of this life will pave their reactions to similar losses in the future. Some families feel they should try to protect their children from the sadness of losing a pet by either not talking about the pet’s death, or by not being honest about what’s happened. Pretending the animal ran away, went to live on a farm or “went to sleep,” can leave a child feeling even more confused, frightened, and betrayed when they finally learn the truth. It’s far better to be honest with children and allow them the opportunity to grieve in their own way. Losing a pet can be a traumatic experience for any child (or adult, let’s face it). Many kids love their pets very deeply and some may not even remember a time in their life when the pet wasn’t around. A child may feel angry and blame themselves—or you—for the pet’s death. A child may feel scared that other people or animals they love may also leave them. How you handle the grieving process can determine whether the experience has a positive or negative effect on your child’s personal development.
Tips for a helping a child cope with the loss of a pet
- Let your child see you express your own grief at the loss of the pet. If you don’t experience the same sense of loss as your child, respect their grief and let them express their feelings openly, without making them feel ashamed or guilty. Children should feel proud that they have so much compassion and care deeply about their animal companions.
- Reassure your child that they weren’t responsible for the pet’s death. The death of a pet can raise a lot of questions and fears in a child. You may need to reassure your child that you, their parents, are not also likely to die. It’s important to talk about all their feelings and concerns.
- Involve your child in the dying process. If you have chosen euthanasia for your pet, be honest with your child. Explain why the choice is necessary and give the child chance to spend some special time with the pet and say goodbye in his or her own way.
- If possible, give the child an opportunity to create a memento of the pet. This could be a special photograph, or a plaster cast of the animal’s paw print, for example.
- Allow the child to be involved in any memorial service, if they desire. Holding a funeral or creating a memorial for the pet can help your child express their feelings openly and help process the loss.
- Do not rush out to get the child a “replacement pet” before they have had chance to grieve the loss they feel. Your child may feel disloyal, or you could send the message that the grief and sadness felt when something dies can simply be overcome by buying a replacement.
- For more information on books and age appropriate ways to talk about death with children, please click here.
Getting another pet: Moving on after pet loss
In my case, getting another pet after the grieving process is only natural. There are so many black labs out there that need rescued, I would feel guilty if I didn’t honor my previous loves by rescuing more and giving them an amazing life. The key is not to rush your decision. If you aren’t ready, then the pets in your home will sense that. When the time is right, the perfect animal will find you.Please remember, each animal is different, so trying to exactly duplicate your old pet will likely result only in frustration and disappointment- which isn’t fair to you or him/her. A new pet should be appreciated fully for its own sake, not as a direct replacement.** Editor’s note** I have said it many times before and I will say it again… There is no right way to grieve or move on. If you need to talk to someone who is going through the same thing, please reach out to me. I can be contacted through the Bailing Out Benji facebook page.