The death of a beloved pet is something we will generally experience several times within our lifetimes, as pets, of course, have shorter lifespans than humans.
One of the things that can be so difficult about the death of a pet is that society doesn’t always know what to make of pet loss, and/or we may rationalize to themselves, “well, it’s just a [dog, cat, rabbit]”. But the loss is the loss of the relationship. Pets can be favorite family members – they don’t talk back, they are unconditionally loving, they are there with us through thick and thin, and provide companionship when we are feeling alone/lonely. Pets also provide us with opportunities to be nurturing and take care of someone who is dependent on us. There has been a relatively new term and designation as “Emotional Support Animal”, but I would say that most people feel that their pets provide emotional support/ are good for our mental health, not just the ones who have the special designation. Pets can bring a lot of joy and laughter into the home. Pets can also help us feel protected – I have definitely seen improvement in clients, especially dealing with depressive or trauma symptoms experiencing improvement when the family pet gets to sleep in their room.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross coined 5 stages of grief, which may tend to go in this particular order but more I’m providing them to present a range of normal feelings and responses to the loss of your pet. David Kessler, a long-time collaborator with Kubler-Ross added a sixth stage: Meaning (Making Meaning). The 6 stages are: Denial, Bargaining, Depression, Anger, Acceptance, Meaning
Things that Can Help Your Grieving Process:
Feel validated by this therapist – losing a pet can be just as hard as losing a human family member or friend, for all the reasons listed above. It can help to allow yourself time/ give yourself and your family members time to grieve. It’s OK (and normal) to grieve when your pet dies. Just tell everyone a therapist said so. 😊
Writing a letter to your pet – how you’re thankful for them, special memories you have of them, wishes you have for them (eg, to be free from pain, etc).
Having a memorial service for your pet (sometimes a nice place to read any letters you all wrote to your pet, if you wish, or scattering of their ashes if you choose to do that).
Make a physical photo album of pictures of your pet from throughout their time with you.
Create an online collage or compilation of several photos of your pet, and share that for support from your social media networks or in an email to select family and friends.
Find ways to memorialize your pet – making a stone for your yard (whether or not your pet is buried), keeping a pawprint of theirs (generally available through the vet if pet required euthanasia), Christmas tree ornament, framed photo, memory box, photo album, planting a tree. There are several more creative ideas that can be purchased by searching on etsy.com, as well.
Reach out for support – family, friends, fellow pet owners, a professional. Keep in mind that your home may feel pretty quiet in the days and weeks after your pet dies, and it’s important to not isolate yourself too much.
Be mindful of your self-care – journaling, taking time for yourself, not overscheduling, doing nice things for yourself, reminding yourself that you may not be at your ‘best’ right now and that that is okay.
If you have other pets, try to keep their routines, as this will help them and may help you as well. Animals are said to a: pick up on owners’ stress and b: grieve themselves when another household pet dies.
Read the pet loss poem about the Rainbow Bridge poem https://www.rainbowsbridge.com/poem.htm
Look up pet loss quotes online, such as, “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard” – Winnie the Pooh
Don’t decide too soon to get a new pet – if it’s a good decision now, it’ll be a good decision in the future when you’ve had more time to heal and mourn.