Coping with the sudden loss of a pet can be an emotionally trying time for most pet owners. For many of us, pets are a beloved extension of our family. When they die unexpectedly, a part of us goes with them. We mourn their loss as that of any other cherished member of our families.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Step 1: Recognize the Loss and Allow Yourself to Grieve
- Step 2: Talk With Your Friends and Family
- Step 3: Seek the Help of a Professional if Needed
- Step 4: Honor the Death of Your Pet
Figuring out how to cope with losing a pet unexpectedly becomes the center of our existence. We begin to ask questions like how can we cope, how can we make those difficult end-of-life decisions, and when is it the right time to consider euthanasia? The following is a step-by-step guide that will answer some of these questions.
Step 1: Recognize the Loss and Allow Yourself to Grieve
Remind yourself that there is no need to give yourself “permission” to feel the emotional pain associated with the death of your pet.
Grief, loss, and mourning are natural emotions that you will go through when your pet dies. Grief is considered “emotional suffering caused by death or bereavement” involving a process that is necessary to begin healing.
No two people grieve the same way, and there is no formula, nor any specific beginning or end to this journey leading to healing. There are, however, recognized stages to this process known as the “five stages of grief.” The stages of grief include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
As mentioned before, there is no timeline in place for these five stages of grief. We all experience them at different times, at different levels, in a different order, and sometimes - not at all. It is okay to not feel certain emotions, and it is okay to process your grief in your own way and in your own time.
It’s normal to skip from the first to the last stage, or to grieve in a different sequence. Take care to avoid comparing your own grieving cycle to this sequential model or others in general. Otherwise, you may begin to question whether or not you are “doing it right.”
To reiterate: There is no right or wrong way to grieve. There is no medal or award for completing or dealing with the five stages of grief. All you can work toward is healing yourself, at your own time, and at your own pace.
At times the grief will seem so unbearable that it will consume you. Loving thoughts of your pet may sometimes bring tears to your eyes when least expected. Saying goodbye to your pet may be one of the most difficult things you will face in your lifetime. Accepting that these reactions are a normal part of the healing process will help you in getting through your grief.
Of course, then the question arises: how do you move ahead when you feel so trapped in your grief?
Step 2: Talk With Your Friends and Family
Remaining open to discussing your pet’s life and death can bring a different type of healing from within. Talking with others about your beloved pet offers an opportunity to interact with others, on top of advancing the healing process by avoiding isolation during this emotionally trying time.
It can be difficult at times to explain to others the unique companionship and love you had with your pet. They may not understand that your pet provided you with much-needed comfort and emotional support.
For some, pets fill in a particular gap that may otherwise be missing from their lives. The bond created between a pet and its owner can be akin to the bond most parents feel toward their children.
Trying to explain this feeling to others may seem like an arduous task. Some people never quite “get it'' when it comes to the special bond between an animal and its owner, and much less so the emotional pain and suffering associated with the loss of that pet.
Regardless, most try to help by offering their sympathy and condolences. However, even with the best intentions, people might come off as hurtful or insincere.
It is important to remind yourself that it is not your responsibility or obligation to validate the companionship between you and your pet and to remember that most people mean well when offering their condolences.
Step 3: Seek the Help of a Professional if Needed
Grief is always normal, but at a certain point you may feel like talking to your loved ones is not enough to get you through your emotional pain and suffering. Many trained professionals out there offer mental health, spiritual, and grief counseling to help you in coping with your grief and loss.
Some of these services may be offered for free, at a reduced charge, or may qualify to be billed against your healthcare insurance. Check with your local resources for recommendations on grief support groups and mental health and/or spiritual counseling.
In addition, there are other resources available to you at no cost, such as books on pet loss and bereavement or support groups through your local public library or community center.
Step 4: Honor the Death of Your Pet
Funerals and end-of-life rituals are not only for the loss of human life. We can honor our beloved and faithful companions the same way as their human counterparts. These rituals can be as simple and as private as you’d like, as long as you remember to honor and recognize your pet’s life and the loving bond the two of you shared.
For example, you can leave a legacy in the form of a financial donation to a local animal shelter in your pet’s name. Another equally valuable way of doing so is through volunteer work. Animal shelters are always looking for help, and it can be both beneficial to the shelter and your continued healing.
Losing your pet does not mean you have to sever your bonds of love and communication with them. It can be very therapeutic to continue these bonds with your pet even after their death. Some of the more common ways to stay connected are to:
- Memorialize in writing the story of the bond you and your pet shared through a eulogy
- Create a memory book or short video of your pet’s life
- Plant a tree or garden
- Continue to go on your daily walks
- Talk to your pet as if they are still near and could hear you
The above continuing bonds exercises are just an example of how you can move forward after the loss of your pet. Some ways offer more healing than others, and not everyone will benefit in the same way from these methods.
However, by continuing to love and honor your pet even after their death you will find a level of comfort that can help you in your healing process.
In some cases, death may not happen quickly and unexpectedly. We may be faced with having to make agonizing end-of-life decisions, like knowing when it’s time to consider euthanasia.
Your veterinarian is likely the best person to ask when you are considering euthanizing your pet. They can help you in making this difficult decision. Here are some behaviors to consider when making the decision to end your pet’s life:
- They are experiencing chronic pain that is not alleviated with medication
- Having to force-feed your pet
- Failing to stand on their own, or falling down when trying to walk
- Experiencing labored breathing or coughing
Deciding when to say goodbye to your pet through euthanasia can be both painful and stressful. Be sure to talk with your veterinarian so that you know what to expect both during and after the procedure.
Moving Ahead with Life After the Loss of Your Pet
Adjusting to your new reality can be one of the first challenges after your pet’s death. Remembering to allow yourself sufficient time to heal is one of the most important things in achieving peace in your new life. Moving ahead does not mean you should forget your old life, your favorite routines, pastimes, and the love you shared with your pet.
Undoubtedly, your life has changed after the death of your pet—including the clear absence of your daily routine with them. However, this is an important reason to continue your normal schedule as much as possible. By doing so, you are actively participating in your own healing process, and accepting the loss of your pet.
Maintaining your normal routine also helps keep you from isolating yourself as well as withdrawing from your old life and habits. It should be noted that social isolation and withdrawal are two of the main factors that can lead to depression.
While staying engaged with your friends and following your normal routine does not guarantee that you will not suffer from depression, it does force you to eventually accept your new reality. And by finding acceptance, you are on your way to creating peace, joy, love, and healing.
- Coyle, C. E., & Dugan, E. (2012). “Social Isolation, Loneliness and Health Among Older Adults.” Journal of Aging and Health, 24(8), 1346–1363. 23 September 2012. doi.org/10.1177/089826431246027
- Kubler-Ross, E. “On Death and Dying.” JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, 221(2), pp. 174-179. 10 July 1972. jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/343400