Death of Your Pet
The death of your pet is another one of life’s difficult, but natural, transitions. Deciding when to say goodbye is one of the hardest things we have to do as pet owners.
Whether our animals live a full and long life and succumb to old age, or if they’re hit by cars, have cancer, or suffer any of the tragedies that don’t take their lives naturally, we’re the ones who ultimately must make that tough decision. No matter how many pets you have, or how often you have to choose to put them down, it never gets any easier.
While the pain may be familiar (or not, if this is your first pet), it can still be very, very intense. It may surprise, frighten or confuse you because it is so strong. Our pets are our family. More than anyone else in our lives they have loved us unconditionally. When they are gone, that loss of love can hit us harder than we imagined. This is normal. Not comfortable, but normal.
Grieving the Death of Your Pet
Some pet owners begin grieving the loss of a pet at the first signs of aging. They recognize that they don’t have much time left and they start reflecting on the coming loss early. If you have a pet who is getting older, who has cancer or recent health problems, you can begin the grieving process early — taking time to spend extra moments with them, doing things they love to do — walk or play, or paying more attention to them. You may want to start taking more photos, or videos of them, and you, enjoying each others company. You may not want to watch or look at these immediately after they’re gone, but for many people such things are comforting reminders of the good times you had.
Other people never grieve until it’s obvious that the time has finally come to say goodbye. Their grieving hits when they begin wrestling with the decision about when or if to put their beloved pet to sleep. Grief however, is as unique as our pets themselves. Some of us are devastated and depressed for days, some for weeks or months and some for years. There is no “right amount of time” for any of us to grieve. It’s a process and it takes as much or as little time as it takes. There will always be a little sadness and pain. That’s part of loving someone or something. It’s like an old wound, broken bone or surgery. It hurts, but over time it may simply just ache once in awhile, but not hurt with the rawness it first did.
Grief will also come in waves, washing over you in unexpected moments, and then fading, leaving you thinking you’re “past the worst of it.” Then it will return, leaving you crying and hurting again. This may happen several times a day in the beginning, and lessen as time goes on. Different holidays, events and things may trigger fresh waves of grief months afterward. This is normal. Anything that reminds you of your pet, the time of day, a habit, dog or cat hair on a coat, silence where there used to be barking, may trigger grief. Many owners will box up their pet’s toys, bedding and collars or leashes to avoid the visual triggers, but things like returning home, waking in the morning, or the time of day you used to feed or walk your pet may still trigger you. Don’t fight it, just feel it and understand what is happening. Stuffing the feelings with food, alcohol, drugs or other behaviors to avoid the feeling won’t eliminate the pain — it will only delay it. It’s okay to cry. Men, boys, teenagers and anyone who thinks it’s not strong or manly to cry is wrong. Grief is an emotion and won’t be denied.
Children and Grieving The Loss Of Your Pet
A child’s first pet loss may be a goldfish, or gerbil, but the pain and grief is still as real to them as if that pet were a cat or dog. Honor their grief. Talk about what they’re feeling and thinking. Help them work through their loss. If a young child is grieving you may see anger, or mood changes. Don’t punish them. Talk to them about how they’re feeling. They may not know how to communicate their fear, pain or loss. If the loss is a family pet — a dog, cat, horse or other animal, the pain may be very intense as animals are often the very creatures our children spend the most time with. They may have lost not only a pet, but a friend and companion.
Anyone who has ever had and lost a pet will understand your loss, but those who never have experienced the loss won’t understand. Don’t worry. There’s nothing wrong with you — they just don’t get it. They’ll encourage you to “Just get over it,” or tell you, “It’s been a week, aren’t you over that already?” Their insensitivity is more about them than you. Your grief is real. Don’t let anyone shame or talk you out of not feeling it.
Death is one of the most difficult transitions any of have to get through. The loss of a pet is the loss of a family member, because they are indeed such parts of our family.
Take time to mourn. Take a day, or several days off from work, or time your trip to the vet on a Friday if possible to allow yourself a couple of extra days. The first couple of days can be the hardest.
Tips For Easing the Pain
- Seek out a friend, or talk about your pet with family members if you feel comfortable doing so. You may not feel like talking to anyone, and that’s okay too.
- Don’t get another pet right away. Take time to grieve the loss of this one. If you have other animals, they may be experiencing the loss and grieving too. Spend extra time with them. They need your attention and love too.
- Cry. It’s okay to cry. You may feel exhausted and like sleeping after a good cry. If you can take a nap, do so!
- Take care of yourself. Remember to eat, drink plenty of water, to go for walks even if you don’t have a pet to walk anymore. The exercise will help you and release the serotonin and other hormones that will help you cope with your loss.
- If you’re worried about your emotional state of mind, or the grief or depression doesn’t seem to be lifting, take that seriously. Call a professional if you need help getting through the tough times, particularly if you don’t have a support network or group to turn to. I host a grief group for pet owners that meets twice a month. Contact me for dates and meeting places, or simply to schedule a time to talk.
- Feel your feelings and realize that while they may hurt, they will pass.