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Dealing with the loss of a pet

From the first time we bring them home, our little furry bundles of joy start stealing our hearts a little more each day. That’s why losing a pet can be heartbreaking, almost in the literal sense, and it can knock the wind right out of you when it happens. For pet people, losing a dog or losing a cat is just as devastating as losing any other member of the family. Sometimes the feeling is so intense that people who don’t own pets seem to not understand. But your fellow pet lovers do, and you can be comforted knowing that there are counselors and other professionals out there who understand, too. “Many people consider their pets to be part of the family, so it’s natural that many people grieve the loss of their pets just as they would grieve the loss of a family member,” says Ben Rutt, Ph.D., licensed psychologist in Baltimore, MD. Jennifer Blough, LPC, licensed professional counselor, certified pet loss grief specialist, and certified compassion fatigue therapist, agrees that “People are often surprised by the depth of grief felt when they lose a beloved companion animal. In fact, they can expect to experience the same emotional rollercoaster or stages of grief that are common to human loss.” After losing a pet, the grieving process can be a rocky road, and it’s different for everyone. Here are some tips from the experts on how to get through it.

Dealing With the Loss

Let yourself feel what you’re feeling. Trying to suppress your feelings can be detrimental to your emotional health. “We need to acknowledge the loss of the animal companion and family member by expressing our grief and not holding it in,” notes Kriss A. Kevorkian, Ph.D., MSW, who holds a doctoral degree in thanatology, (the study/science of death, dying and bereavement). And don’t worry if it takes a while to feel anything. It’s best to “honor your grief and give yourself time to process your emotions,” says Blough. After all, it’s not a race or something that can or should be rushed.

Understand that there’s no right way to grieve. Everyone has their own way of coping with losing a pet. Dr. Rutt explains that “It’s largely determined by what we learned as we were growing up.” People often refer to a process of five specific stages—denial, anger, bargaining, sorrow and resolution. But Blough cautions that “It’s important to note that not everyone experiences each of these stages, nor in this exact order, and it’s very common to bounce back and forth between stages.” Dr. Kevorkian claims that these rigid stages come from an old school way of defining grief and agrees that “Grief is unique to each person so we’ll all respond differently to the loss.” There’s no need to compare yourself to anyone else to judge whether you’re feeling enough of the “right” emotion and whether your process is too short or too long.

Teach healthy coping skills.

Saying goodbye to a pet is difficult for everyone in the family, and if you have children, it’s likely their first experience with death. In the same way that we should allow ourselves to feel our feelings, “Children should know that it’s okay to feel emotions and grieve a loss,” states Dr. Rutt. He points out that loss is an inevitable part of life, and how we teach our children to grieve will likely carry over into their adult life. So losing a cat or losing a dog becomes an opportunity for kids to learn healthy coping skills. Don’t be afraid to express your emotions in front of them. “Communicating your feelings will show a child the best ways to cope,” remarks Dr. Kevorkian. “For a child, it can be like losing a best friend… Listen to the child share their grief reactions.” Go beyond listening by empathizing and validating your child’s response to losing a pet. “It’s imperative that we first and foremost validate children’s grief over a pet—even if it’s a goldfish,” notes Blough. She advises that parents should consider a child’s age when talking about death and grief and keep communication open so they don’t blame themselves or start worrying that their parents will die at any moment. “If kids are too young to express themselves with words,” she says, “help them express their feelings through coloring or other forms of art.”

The Healing Process

Give yourself the time you need.

Grief doesn’t have an expiration date—you don’t have to feel ashamed for getting over it too quickly or taking too long or “making such a big deal,” and you shouldn’t feel pressured to suppress your feelings after a certain period of time has passed. “Some may get over their pet’s loss in a week. Others may still be grieving a pet’s loss after a year,” says Dr. Rutt. Time is a big question when it comes to how long you should wait after losing a pet before you consider adopting another pet. This is also something that depends on the pet parent or family. Dr. Rutt advises that “at some point you just have to go with your gut. If it feels like the right time to get a new pet, it probably is.” When you do decide to take in a new furry friend, remember that no two pets are exactly alike, and don’t expect the new pet to be just like your beloved pet that’s passed.

Keep your mind busy and your body active.

Yes, you should allow yourself to grieve properly, but you can also try to engage your mind for a healthy, even if brief, break from mourning. Dr. Rutt suggests going on walks, exercising, working on crafts or spending time with supportive people. Dr. Kevorkian recommends enjoying the outdoors. “Nature is healing and soothing while reminding us that life ends.” It’s a nice way to frame the cycle of life, even though losing a pet is painful. Blough stresses self-care during the grieving process, as it can take a harsh toll on the mind and body. “Make sure to eat well and stay hydrated, especially if you’re experiencing lots of tears. Try to stay physically active even if it’s just daily walking. Maybe even treat yourself to a massage.” She also says it may be helpful to keep a grief journal to express your feelings.

Find a support network.

When you’re working through the experience of losing a pet, try talking to other pet parents or pet lovers that understand what you’re feeling. You can even find a support group. “I believe support groups are extremely helpful so folks can see that they are not alone. Often, the bereaved in the group meet for coffee after group meetings and schedule social activities that can bring light and hope to many,” says Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author of The Self-Aware Parent. If you need to, adds Dr. Kevorkian, see a grief counselor for support. “Not everyone will understand why you’re grieving for an animal, but there are those of us who will.”

Plan a memorial service.

According to Donna Henes, a spiritual counselor, ritualist, and certified funeral celebrant, “A sensitive, personalized ceremony will help with feelings of grief and guilt. It will honor the love and attachment that is shared between people and animals.” She goes on to explain that the ceremony can establish closure and offer comfort. A memorial ceremony can also be good for children, but only if they want to participate. It can be held whenever the family is ready, and you don’t need to feel bad if your family decides not to have a funeral. Henes suggests putting farewell messages or charms into the casket or box, or wrapping the pet in a cherished blanket. You can also find or make a grave marker or plant a tree on the grave. Children can be involved in each of these activities, but again, only if that’s what they want to do.

Commemorate your pet.

Blough has plenty of ideas for ways to say goodbye to your lifelong four-legged companion, aside from holding a funeral. You can tap into your creative side to put together a collage or scrapbook, or even write a letter to your pet or a poem in honor of their memory. Making art or coming up with a song about your pet can also help you heal. Other great ideas include planting flowers in the yard in their favorite spot, creating an online memorial, or volunteering at an animal shelter.

No one is ready for the day their sweet, cuddly creatures have to cross the rainbow bridge. And no matter how much we want to believe our pets will live forever, the day will come to say goodbye. As Blough says, “there is no way around grief, only through it.” Although it can feel like your heart is breaking, in time, you’ll be able to look back and smile when you remember that first time they licked your face or curled up next to you and purred for hours.

Not sure where to start?

Here’s a recap of some actions you can take to help begin the healing process:

See a grief counselor

Form or go to a support group

Share your feelings with friends and family

Spend time outdoors

Write a letter to your pet

Keep a grief journal

Hold a memorial service

Get a tattoo of your pet

Make an online memorial

Volunteer at an animal shelter

Write a poem or song

Create a work of art

Plant a tree or flowers in their special spot

Make a collage or scrapbook

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