Coping with the death of our pet can be extremely difficult.
Our relationships with our animal companions and pets are some of the deepest and most meaningful relationships in our lives. Taking care of our pets is part of our daily routine and can often give us a sense of purpose and structure to the day.
Our pets are a huge presence in our homes and families, with their personalities and with their toys, photos, and pitter-patter of paws on the ground. Pets shower us with unconditional love, with physical affection, with a soothing presence in our moments of distress.
Coping with the death of a pet can be extremely challenging due to the depth of the relationship and thus the depth of our grief. We are grieving the loss of our pet in the present, the ensuing changes in our lives without their presence, the loss of the imagined future we had with them.
Even though most of us welcome animals into our homes knowing that they have shorter life spans than us and that we’ll probably outlive them, the last thing we often think about is the mortality of our pets.
As you grieve your pet, here are a few things to keep in mind. This list is intended not as a recipe to be followed but rather different concepts to try on to see if they work for you. Some might be more useful to you than others at different points in your grief journey.
1. Free yourself from expectations for your grief
Our internal voice can be a harsh critic, and you may find yourself judging yourself for your grief response following the death of your pet. The depth of your pain and the duration of your grief response may surprise you and you may find yourself judging yourself for crying or for “still” experiencing grief for your loved one.
You might think that you “should” be “better” by now or that you “should” get it together. And yet, those self-criticisms, expectations, and judgments can actually increase the pain of our grief – feeling bad about feeling bad only makes us feel worse!
Try to notice your judgmental self thoughts and gently challenge them or replace them with self-compassionate ones.
Remind yourself that your grief is valid and that there is no set timeline or expiration date for grief.
Your pet was an important part of your life and your family, and your grief about their passing is a normal human response to loss.
2. Engage in rituals and memorialization
Rituals and memorializing our lost loved ones can help us to express grief while connecting to something larger than ourselves.
Rituals of transition (like cleaning out their kennel or living area or donating their food), commemoration (like lighting a candle or creating an altar), and affirmation (like writing a letter or talking to your pet) can help you to process the loss and your grief by providing the opportunity for safe expression of grief.
Your rituals and memorialization practices can be connected to your specific cultural and familial practices related to loss, and they could also be uniquely connected to your specific pet.
- You may find comfort in continuing to do the usual morning walk together by bringing along your pet’s collar and leash.
- You might come home from work and tell them about your day.
- You might host a memorial service at their favorite park and invite their human and animal friends to honor and celebrate them.
Rituals and memorialization practices can help you to maintain your connection to your pet and to recognize that your relationship with your pet has not ended but rather changed.
Finding creative outlets for memorialization can help with our expression of grief as well.
- You and your family can paint or draw your animal companion or what your grief feels like to allow for non-verbal emotional expression.
- You can create a photo collage or photo book of your adventures together.
- You can write a poem or song or story to or about your pet to honor the relationship.
- You can incorporate a daily movement practice or ritual to move the grief energy through your body.
There are infinite ways to ritualize and memorialize that can support grief expression – you can experiment with what works for you.
3. Find community
Pet loss is a disenfranchised loss that is often misunderstood and judged by others as being not valid. Some people in your life might not understand your grief response to “just” an animal’s death or may try to encourage you to “move on” and simply get another pet.
Some bereaved pet owners feel they cannot talk to friends, coworkers, or family about the loss without being judged, and they may be unable to take time off from school or work to grieve. These societal factors can compress the space we have to grieve and can increase our distress while grieving.
Regardless of society’s understanding of your grief, your grief for your pet is valid.
Your grief and your story are sacred, and you deserve to have people who can listen and be with your pain without trying to diminish or solve it. Share the story of your pet and your grief with people who can honor your experience, and try to lessen your sharing with people who cannot hold empathy for you.
Finding people in your life to talk to who can understand your experience with nonjudgmental compassion can help ease the isolation of grief and to acknowledge the deep pain of the loss.
4. Take care of yourself
Grief takes an enormous amount of emotional and physical energy. Studies have shown that self-compassion can moderate the severity of grief response and depression.
In other words, taking care of ourselves and being gentle with ourselves is an important step to healing while still remaining connected to our loved ones.
Grief often comes in waves – it is important that we do things to nourish and take care of ourselves so that we can grieve and continue to live.
- Drinking water, eating regularly, getting enough sleep, getting movement in the day, and setting up a routine for ourselves are all examples of fundamental ways to take care of ourselves while grieving.
- Engaging in activities that bring pleasure and/or spending time with loved ones can help resource us so that we can feel the depth of our emotions as we grieve.
- Taking care of yourself can look different for each person while grieving.
Some people find that taking time off from school or work is essential because of the toll of the grief, while others find that continuing to work and go to school are helpful distractions from the grief that allow for compartmentalization and distinctive times for grief.
Taking an intentional break from the active grief experience is not necessarily denial or avoidance of the grief or minimization of the loss but rather can be a healthy strategy for managing the intense emotions of grief.
5. Reach out for support
Remember, your grief experience is valid and a natural part of the human response to loss. But, that does not mean the pain isn’t real.
Creating nonjudgmental space for our emotions can facilitate our grief expression, and this space can be created individually, with your family, with your friends, with your larger community, and in a therapeutic setting. You may find yourself needing additional support as you cope with the loss of your pet and the loss of their support in your life, and that does not make you weak – it makes you a grieving human.
Validate your need for additional support and reach out to people in your life who you know can support you. Sometimes finding intentional support spaces in addition to your normal communities and connections can help you process your grief safely.
You can look for local grief support groups in your area; some animal welfare agencies host specific pet loss support groups for folks in their communities.
If you’re having difficulty coping with the death of a pet, consider reaching out for extra support with this process through individual or group therapy.
About the Author
Sharleen says, “I help my clients identify their existing strengths and develop their skills to cope with life’s challenges in order to grow into the people they want to be.”
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