Tips to Help You and Your Family Deal with the Loss of a Pet
Pets become an important part of our lives, and losing them can be devastating. Every loss is different, and how a person responds is unique. Below we will share some ways people respond to the loss of a pet, provide some tips on how to better deal with the loss of a pet, and share some tips on how to best help support children and help them understand the loss of a pet.
Dealing with the Loss of a Pet – Children vs. Adults
As adults, our understanding of death is very different from a child’s. The understanding and comprehension a child has about death depend largely on their age. Death may or may not be permanent in the mind of a child. Read this article for a good understanding of what children understand about death at different ages. Go to How to Tell Your Child About Putting a Dog Down: Dos and Don’ts. If you have pets and children, this article is a must-read.
As adults, our ability to deal with the loss of a pet can depend on many factors. These can include our prior experience with loss and death, other stressors in our lives, our individual relationship with a particular pet, and our family or social support network. There are many different ways a person can respond to the loss of a pet.
How People Deal with the Loss of a Pet
As a veterinarian, I’ve seen just about every reaction to the loss of a pet you can imagine. For some, the pet was their child or family member. They grieve deeply. Others have verbally told me “it was just a dog,” and that is that. No tears. No emotion. And I’ve seen every emotion in between.
Below are some reactions to the loss of a pet that stand out in my mind:
- Hard being strong. Some individuals get their first pet as young adults, start a family, and find themselves losing a pet with their children. As they work through their own grief, they have to be strong for their family. Sometimes there is concurrent guilt as they reflect how their pet was number one for many years, then became a lower priority as life changed.
- Suicidal thoughts. I’ve had clients tell me they didn’t want to live after the loss of a pet. This is just about the hardest thing to deal with. Anyone that considers self-harm or contemplates suicide must seek help from a professional. An excellent article that walks you through the stages of grief and support options was written by Bonnie Mader, who was the co-founder of a Pet Loss Support Hotline at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine. Read her full article here (which includes support phone numbers): Pet Loss Support: Helping You Cope After Your Dog’s Death. There are pet loss counselors — read this interview at Pet Grief Support: Talking with a Pet Loss Counselor.
- Guilt. A number of clients focus on guilt with the loss of a pet. Guilt can originate from thoughts that they were busy and believe they neglected their pet’s signs of illness until it was advanced. Or, it can have to do with limited financial resources to provide possible life-saving medical care. Some find it difficult to grieve properly due to their guilt.
- Memorial. Many pet lovers place some of their grief and emotional energy in creating a memorial or tribute to their beloved friend. I’ve seen this in the form of a funeral (some quite elaborate), a photo album, and/or artistic creations such as a painting. Some find a special urn for the ashes and place it in a particular area in their homes and lives.
- Save the ashes. Some clients find comfort in having their pets cremated and saving their ashes to be later buried with them or mixed with their own ashes. Several believe that this allows them to be together forever and provides comfort.
- Silence. Some pet owners cope by not talking about their loss and trying to put it out of their mind. If I see them in the clinic, their pet never comes up and if it is mentioned for any reason, they shut that conversation down with a quick topic change.
- Lost. Some clients become somewhat lost and want to be alone. They avoid social activities and family functions. I’ve actually had clients not want to come back to a hospital because of their profound memories of dealing with a pet’s loss.
- Rituals. Over the years, I’ve had clients perform quite simple to elaborate rituals to mourn the passing of a pet. For years, I had a client come to the hospital and request to light a candle in a room where she euthanized her 20-year-old pet that had cancer. She felt closer to her pet and believed she felt its spirit present. Another client celebrates her dog’s birthday every year with a glass of wine, close friends, and a stroll through memory lane with a photo album.
- Sadness. My first pet was named Kali. She died unexpectedly when I was in college and to say I was devastated is an understatement. I still cry when I think of her and become sad. I’ve learned to box off those emotions, at least most of the time. Occasionally I see a cat that reminds me of her and an involuntary tear is shed. Feelings of loss and sadness are common and can continue for years.
- Jewelry. Another way clients take comfort in this difficult time is to have jewelry made from their pet’s ashes. I frequently have clients show their special pieces of jewelry for pets that I have cared for. They have truly found comfort in knowing their pet is with them all the time when they wear their jewelry.
- Fake strength. Some try to be strong, they may even say the wrong things, they may even be inappropriate with a joke or laughter, while being devastated by the loss of their special friend. Some find comfort in physically carrying their pet out of the clinic and going home to dig a burial hole. Sometimes the physical act of digging a hole allows them some personal time to say goodbye and provides closure.
Many of these responses described can be categorized into the stages of grief that include anger, denial, depression, acceptance, and bargaining. Learn more about these stages — go to Pet Loss Support: Helping You Cope After Your Dog’s Death.