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Understanding the Loss of Your Pet 

The death of a pet can mean saying goodbye to a beloved friend and companion. Give yourself time to grieve.

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The loss of a pet is like the loss of a close family member to many people. For some, the loss of a pet can be felt even more tragically and more acutely than the loss of a person. This can happen because our pets live relatively short lives. For many of us who love our pets, their death can affect some of us even more than the death of a relative or friend. The death of a pet leaves few people totally untouched.

A pet may come to symbolize many things to each of us. It may represent a child, perhaps a child yet to be conceived or the innocent child in us all. It may reflect the ideal mate or parent, ever faithful, patient and welcoming, loving us unconditionally. It is a playmate and a sibling. It is a reflection of ourselves, embodying negative and positive qualities we recognize or lack in ourselves. The same pet may be all of these, alternating between roles on any given day or for each member of the family.

Understandin the loss of your pet

When a pet dies, we expect that our pain will be acknowledged, even if it is not shared, by our relatives, friends, and colleagues. Though the bond between you and your pet is as valuable as any of your human relationships, the importance of its loss may not be appreciated by other people. The process of grieving for a pet is no different than mourning the death of a human being. The difference lies in the value that is placed on your pet by your family and by society as a whole.

Your grief may be compounded by lack of response from a friend or family member. Realize that you do not need anyone else's approval to mourn the loss of your pet, nor must you justify your feelings to anyone. Do not fault anyone who cannot appreciate the depth of your grief for a pet. The joy found in the companionship of a pet is a blessing not given to everyone.

Seek validation for your pain from people who will understand you. Speak with your veterinarian, a veterinary technician, groomer or another pet owner. Ask for a referral to pet grief support groups or veterinary bereavement counselors in your area. The death of a pet can revive painful memories and unresolved conflicts from the past that amplify your current emotional upheaval. Seek comfort in the support of professional counselors or clergy.

By Julie Axelrod

5 Stages of Grief and Mourning (top)

5 stages of grief

In 1969, Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross proposed a 5-stage system for how people deal with grief and tragedy, especially when presented with a terminal illness or confronted with a catastrophic loss. Over the years, your pet has come to mean a great deal of things to you and your family and the trauma of his/her death will bring about this period of mourning and grief.

There are 5 discrete stages in normal grief. It is important to understand that the stages are not sequential and may occur in any order. The amount of time spent in each stage, as well as the degree of outward manifestations, will vary from person to person. During the bereavement process, people may also bounce back and forth between stages.

Denial 

Denial is an immediate and generally fleeting reaction characterized by disbelief and numbness. You “know” your pet has died, but your heart is not quite ready to accept that reality. Denial may be felt particularly in the event of a sudden, traumatic, or unexpected death. Anger

Anger 

The feeling that someone or something is to blame for a pet’s death is a common response to loss. Anger an mask other feelings, such as guilt, fear, helplessness, or despair. Ask your veterinarian questions and let him or her help you understand what occurred that caused your pet’s death. Your veterinary team will understand your need to grieve and will not take your anger personally.

Bargaining & Guilt 

5 stages of grief

This phase of grief often happens while discussing treatment plans or options as a pet is very ill or close to death. You may try to "bargain" to feel you have some control over an outcome you dread. The finality of loss and death is difficult to accept when it means the loss of a loved one. You may attempt to somehow "rewrite the script" by promising interventions or contributions we'll make if only we can change the outcome, such as "If Max lives, I'll exercise her every day and quit feeding her from the table."

Guilt may be the most common grief response to a pet’s death. You may even feel as though you have "murdered" your pet, or took the easy way out, or made the decision too quickly. Guardians of pets who die of old age or illness will question why they didn't respond sooner, or feel badly because their pet died alone. Accidental or premature deaths may make you feel guilty ("If only I hadn't opened the door," or, "If only I’d been more careful.")

To deal with guilt, try to remember how much you gave your pet and got in return. Think about what your pet would say about your life together. Remember that cancer, the car, old age, etc, caused your pet’s death, not a lack of love and devotion from you.

Depression 

Depression is another common grief response. Signs of depression include feeling quiet, sad, or lethargic. Sleep disruptions and changes in eating habits are other frequent signs. When stuck in depression, it is difficult for people to imagine ever moving past it. You may be surprised at the intensity and duration of your emotions, but be assured that depression is not a sign of weakness. One of the best counters to a depressed state is taking some sort of action.

If you are still feeling too sad to do any of these activities, give yourself permission to take more time to heal. Your pet was, after all, a huge part of your world and it takes time—sometimes more time than we can anticipate—to feel better.

Acceptance 

As time goes by, you will likely find that the signs of grief are fading. The pain of loss is not as profound and begins to life.

If your feelings of depression last for more than a few weeks after the loss of your pet or are impacting your overall quality of life, it is time contact your physician.

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Children and Pet Loss (top)

children and pet loss

When children experience the loss of a pet, they must complete 2 processes to deal with the ordeal.

  1. The process of grieving
  2. The process of healing

As parents, it is natural to want to protect you're child from the pain and the suffering that comes from the loss of close friend and companion. We must however, recognize that death is a natural step in the life cycle and our desire to protect a child from the realities of it stems from our personal unreconciled fears. Thus most adults are surprised to find how well most children adjust to the death of a pet when they are give simple, honest answers and explanations.

When talking to children about grief and death:

A discussion about death should include proper words such as "cancer", "died", and "death". Substitute words or phrases (passed away, put to sleep, he is sleeping, we lost him) should never be used as they can cause confusion and misunderstandings.

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Memorial Services and Grief Rituals (top)

memorial services and grief rituals

One of the major set backs in dealing with pet loss is the lack of tradition and rituals that provide a feeling of closure and allow people to begin moving forward. Memorial services and funerals commemorate the dead, but they are for the living. They mark that major life change has occurred and acknowledge those who are left behind.

Events such as memorials and funerals allow you to acknowledge the death of your pet, even if many other people seem unaffected. Understand that you do not need anyone's permission to grieve your pet. A memorial service or other grief ritual serves as a way for you to acknowledge the passing of your pet and the change in your life. The formalities of a memorial service can also help children acknowledge the change as well.

Although many people do conduct a memorial service, it is left to each individual to do whatever is necessary to find a sense of finality and closure that can effect the healing process.

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