Grief is an Expression of Love & Loss
Our companion animals offer us constant, dependable, unconditional love and friendship. They allow us to be ourselves, relieve our stress with their touch, and encourage us to remember to play and relax. They keep us active, remind us to slow down, help us meet new people, and keep us company. They generously share their joy in the present and their comforting presence and devotion create a safe haven in our hectic lives.
Although the loss of our companion is an inevitable part of this relationship, we may be taken off guard by the magnitude of our sorrow. This loss can leave us feeling lost and very much alone. It may be surprising that the loss of a pet has as much or greater an impact on us than that of a relative or friend, but it is perfectly logical because our pet is an integral part of our everyday lives. Each pet and his or her relationship with each of us is irreplaceable. The process of mourning allows us to adapt to this loss and to adjust to our lives without their physical presence.
Stages of Grief
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 one. There is no correct order or time frame, but rather a journey back and forth between stages, which will lessen in intensity over time.
The stages or feelings of grief:
- Denial, shock, despair, numbness, disbelief, anguish, loneliness, helplessness, hopelessness, irritability, need to blame, disconnectedness.
- Anger may follow denial. This anger can be directed toward people you normally love and respect, including your family and veterinarian. You may say things that you do not really mean, perhaps hurting those whom you do not mean to hurt. You may blame yourself or others for not recognizing the illness earlier or for being careless and allowing the pet to be injured.
- You may also feel guilt and depression. This is when you usually feel the greatest sense of loss. The tears flow, there are knots in your stomach, and you are drained of all your energy. Day-to-day tasks can seem impossible.
- Once you and your family have time to process your grief, the final stage is reorganization and acceptance, recovery, feeling at peace, the ability to talk about the deceased pet without intense emotions or reaction and to experience positive memories. When you have reached resolution and acceptance, the feelings of anger, denial, guilt, and depression may reappear. If this does occur, the intensity of these feelings will be much less and, with time, will be replaced with fond memories.
The death of a beloved pet is one of the most significant losses of our lives. We have the right to experience all of these feelings. Acknowledging the depth of our loss and allowing the full experience of the mourning process brings resolution. Repression of grief feelings will only lengthen the time necessary to heal.
Fortunately, there has been a great shift in our society toward 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 fortunate enough to have fully experienced the human–animal bond. They may surprise us with a cavalier response or try to minimize our loss. It is important 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 helpful, especially if profound grief continues without resolving.
It is often helpful in our grieving process to honor our dear animal friends with a memorial, a ceremony or funeral service with family and close friends, or a service of celebration for our pet’s life.
Other ideas include:
- Writing a letter to or a poem or story about your pet
- Creating a scrapbook or photo album
- Making a donation to a shelter or other charity in your pet’s name
- Creating a memorial garden
- Saving belongings such as fur clippings, collar, toys, and blankets in a special place
- Placing ashes in a special place or scattering in special places
- Volunteering at a local shelter to give companionship to other pets in need
- Creating an online memorial
- Spending extra time at home with other pets that may be grieving, comforting each other and creating new routines.
Helping Children Cope with the Loss of a Pet
Children have special relationships with their pets. It is natural to want to shield children from the pain of loss; however, we cannot protect them from death and grief, and they respond best to honesty and compassion. Children respect straightforward, truthful, and simple answers. Actions that you can take to help children through this process include:
- Understanding—Explain that the pet has died and what caused the death. If necessary, explain what the word “death” means. Avoid euphemisms like “gone away,” “put to sleep,” or “lost”. Avoid overloading your children with details.
- Encourage expressions of feeling—Children will model their parents’ behaviors. Try drawing, writing, and talking together about the pet. Share your beliefs, hopes, and faiths about the soul or spirit of pets.
- Memorialize—A funeral, service, or placement of ashes encourages healthy closure and allows your child to honor the pet’s life.
Lastly, the consideration of a new pet may bring up feelings of guilt. Some may feel they would never want another pet. A new pet may help others get over the loss more quickly. Just as grief is a personal experience, the decision of when, if ever, to bring a new pet into your home is also a personal one. If a family member is having difficulty accepting the pet’s death, bringing a new pet into the home before that individual has resolved his or her grief may imply that the life of the deceased pet was unworthy of the grief that is still being felt. Family members should come to an agreement on the appropriate time to acquire a new pet. Although you can never replace the pet you lost, you can share your life with another one.
We offer a Pet Loss Library for those anticipating the death of a pet or are currently experiencing grief. This resource gives you answers to your frequently asked questions about grieving the death of a pet and allows you to read information and stories from others.
All of us at Pacific Animal Hospital understand that grief over the loss of a pet is an expression of your love, and we have been through such a loss, too. We invite you to discuss your feelings with us and hope our support and compassion during this time is a comfort to you and your family.