The first pet that was truly my own, I lost. I adopted a tuxedo cat to bring some energy, love (and mice patrol) into my home, which was empty of both children and pets. One day, the cat simply did not return home from its adventures outside. And just like that, my normal life became filled with panic, guilt, stress and depression.
With a bag full of cat treats I searched the wilderness. I covered my community in ‘missing’ posters, and I drove around until midnight for weeks, desperately hoping I could find my pet.
The mourning period brought on by this loss was longer and deeper than I had ever thought possible. It was bleaker than the grief I’d felt for lost loved ones, the breakups I’d suffered, or any negative curveballs life had thrown at me. To summarize, losing my pet was the hardest thing I’d gone through.
I asked myself how it was possible that I was mourning more over my missing cat than my deceased loved ones. But deep down I knew the answer – there is something profoundly powerful in a person’s bond with their pet. Through no choice of their own, our animals depend on us for their safety and quality of life. They worship and adore us with pure innocence. As owners, we are our pets’ whole world. We hold their delicate fates in our hands, often for the duration of their entire lives. Since dogs and cats can live up to 15 years, some of us have known our pets longer than our significant others. Losing a pet is an experience unique and separate from that of losing a friend or family member. It can be an exceedingly difficult sorrow to bear.
Steve Dale, in an article on FearFreePets.com describes the rising trend of serious pet ownership in millennials (people born between 1981-1996). “When you think about it,” Dale writes, “millennial attachment to pets isn’t a shocker. This is the generation that dubbed their pets ‘fur babies’ or refer to themselves as pet parents. Pet product purchases among millennials is on the rise. Millennial pet parents think nothing of dressing up pets for Halloween or having their pet wear the sweater of their favorite football team. According to the American Pet Products Association (APPA) Pet Owners Survey 2017-2018, just over 70 percent of millennial dog caretakers and 55 percent of millennial cat caretakers say their pet ‘is like a child.’” Dale goes on to describe how millennials have more pets per household than any other living generation.
So, considering this, is there anything we can do to ease the grief of losing a pet?
Understand the Basis of Your Grief
How we lose our pets affects how painful and traumatic the experience is for us. For example, a pet might pass peacefully because of old age. In contrast, it might succumb to a sudden accident or illness. Sometimes our pets get lost or go missing, and we are left wondering what happened. Sometimes, we have to make the heavy decision to euthanize an animal in pain.
“Feelings of guilt often accompany euthanasia. It is a heavy burden to bear deciding when to end another being’s life. These feelings are perfectly natural. But please know that you ended your pet’s life because it was their time. You put an end to a time where they were suffering and likely in some sort of pain or distress. There was no hope for recovery or further treatment that would provide both quantity of life, and more importantly, quality of life,” writes John M. Grohol, Psy.D. in an article in Psychcentral.com.
Many psychologists agree that losing a cherished pet is comparable, or for some people, worse, than losing a loved one. People who lose a pet might be shocked at their grief, and may not understand why it’s so intense. Keep in mind that it’s normal to experience the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. And remember that these phases may not occur in the prescribed order.
Easing the Pain
There’s no ‘right way’ to deal with loss – only different ways to self-soothe and seek support. Some people may find it too difficult to face constant reminders of their pet. If seeing the pet’s items (toys, leashes, bedding) triggers too much pain, remove the items from your sight until you feel more stable. While some people need to get distance from reminders of their pets, other people may feel a sense of comfort from these things.
In fact, psychologists encourage the memorialization of pets – with photo albums, paintings, saving the ashes, jewelry engravings and memorial services. Some people even choose to get memorial tattoos.
“Your memories allow your pets to live on in you. Embracing these memories, both happy and sad, can be a very slow and, at times, painful process that occurs in small steps. For example, take some time to look at past photos, write a tribute to your pet, or write your pet a letter recalling your time together,” advises an article on American Veterinary Medical Association.
Not Everyone Can Empathize with Your Loss
Pets are a non-stop source of comfort, loyalty and unconditional love. People bond to their pets with a ferocity that is hard to explain to a non-pet owner.
Non-pet owners, or people who never bonded with a pet in such a way, will struggle to understand your grief. They may invalidate your feelings as you go through the grieving process, saying things like ‘get over it,’ ‘it was just an animal,’ or ‘you shouldn’t be this upset.’ Your boss or coworkers might not recognize a need to be off work.
Invalidation from the people you’re closest with will sting the most. Just remember they are actually trying to help you, even if what they’re saying is hurtful. They want you to skip over the grief they see you suffering with, and think if you take on this mindset of ‘it was just a pet,’ it may relieve you. They don’t always recognize the drastic life changes that have occurred for you.
Joe Yonan writes in an article on the Washington Post about his experiences with grief after losing his dog Gromit.
“Over the course of 13 years, for instance, the same thing would happen with Gromit every morning. I would sit on my bed to put on my shoes, and he would drape himself across my lap. I would scratch his butt and he would reward me with a big sloppy kiss. Recently, I did the math: Accounting for the times I was traveling without him, this interaction happened more than 4,000 times. So it makes sense that when he died, it was months before I could touch my shoelaces without expecting to also touch him. And I had no idea what to do with my mornings without my pooch to require that small gesture of me.”
Remember many people will not be able to properly empathize with you. If invalidating comments from friends or family members become too much to handle, communicate your boundaries. For example, you can say, “I appreciate your concern and love, but I am dealing with this in my own way. And don’t want to discuss it at this time.”
Having a shoulder to cry on can alleviate some of the pain. Remember you are not alone in your grief.
“You need the love and support of others because you never ‘get over’ grief,” states the American Veterinary Medical Association article titled ‘Coping with the loss of a pet.’ “Talking or being with other pet owners who have experienced the death of a pet can be one important way to meet this need.”
Some people participate in pet loss support groups, while others find comfort in adoption or fostering animals in need. Many people seek out grief counseling, while others lean on religious beliefs and supports.
The popular belief that our pets cross into the afterlife with us is called the Rainbow Bridge.
“According to poems, upon death, the pet finds itself in a lush, green meadow filled with sunshine… There, the pet waits until its human companion dies and is reunited with them in the meadow. Together, they cross the Rainbow Bridge to heaven,” states an article by Humane Goods.
Our pets share our lives intimately: our moments of sorrow, joy, celebration and trauma. They sleep in our beds and share our meals. They come on our road trips, adventure with us outdoors, move across country and share in our milestones. Our pets recognize when we are stressed or sad or angry, and offer affection in the form of purrs, licks and cuddles. It’s not uncommon for a pet to have even saved its owners life, either figuratively or literally.
There’s no one way to grieve for your lost pet. Your feelings will depend on the relationship you had with your pet, the circumstances of the loss, and the support systems in your life. Remember you were blessed to have such a rich relationship with your pet, and their lives were filled with joy because of you.
If you would like to seek the support of one of our counselors for grief, please reach out to us at Family & Child Development. Our pets are our family members, and we are here to support you in the healing process.