The Path Through Pet Loss: 4 Steps You Must Take (Revised & Updated)
The loss of a beloved animal can throw your life into utter chaos.
It's only natural.
There is no earthly love stronger than that between a special animal and its devoted human guardians.
What other relationship in our lives is as pure, unselfish or constant?
It is no wonder that when that bond is severed by death, the survivor is often left emotionally adrift. A potential Pandora’s Box of emotions can be set loose by pet loss: anger, guilt, loneliness, second-guessing, abject depression and more.
In fact, when you have lost a cherished animal, you may feel at first as if you've gone insane.
Memories and feelings may crash and ricochet through you, clouding your concentration and addling your reason. The pain can steal your sleep and drain rivers from your eyes.
As off-balance as you may feel, know that you are NOT crazy. Or weak. Or over-dramatic. What you are is someone capable of feeling deep love and you are now suffering the quite normal shock following a heartbreaking loss.
Hold on; like all shock, it will lessen over time.
In the Pet Loss Companion, grief counselors Ken Dolan-Del Vecchio and Nancy Saxton-Lopez offers this reassurance and advice:
“Grief will gradually turn your unbearable recent news into manageable older news, too. We promise. Your loss will become more familiar and tolerable. Unfortunately, much of what you face between now and then lies outside your control. You can’t regulate the flow of your emotions, and you can’t direct the ups and downs of your appetite, and you can’t bring order to your periods of clarity and confusion. You can decide, however, many of the things that you will and won’t do to take care of yourself, and these decisions can lessen your suffering.”
The daily basics of “taking care of yourself” include getting out of bed, normal physical hygiene, eating properly, and attempting to go about the business of life as usual.
Beyond that, patience and extra kindness – toward yourself – is especially important after a pet dies. Your emotions may be flooding your mind with what-ifs, should-haves, and you-failed messages.
When you feel yourself slipping into guilt or self-doubt, remind yourself that the misery you’re feeling now is the direct, natural, and normal result of loving unconditionally.
With such love for your companion, is it likely that you did anything but your absolute best? If somehow you did make a mistake in dealing with your pet, wouldn’t your loyal friend unconditionally forgive you?
Be extra patient with others too.
Your world may have just careened out of control. People around you though are immersed in their own concerns, pains, and realities, and will not truly be able to understand what you are going through.
Only those who are also able to love a pet unconditionally will be able to empathize. Seek out others who have suffered as you are suffering.
Other people may feel sympathy but expect you to “get over it” without too much fuss or time. Still others may not understand at all, responding with unintentionally hurtful comments like: “There a lot more at the pound, go get another.” As if animals are as interchangeable and disposable as toothbrushes.
If you can, channel as much of the love you feel for your lost pet into a kind, forgiving and supportive attitude to yourself and those around you. Pay it forward and you will move forward on the path of pet loss.
GRIEF IS A JOURNEY
There is no way around grief of pet loss. Millions and millions have tried before you and failed. You can only go through it.
Grief is the toll we pay for sharing deep love with another. Pain of loss is built into the very DNA of love.
Many articles on loss quote writer Joan Didion, from the The Year of Magical Thinking, as saying that grief is passive and mourning is active. I think perhaps more accurately, grief is internal and mourning is external.
Because, make no mistake, grief is work. The term “grief work,” coined by psychiatrist Erich Lindemann in 1944, is now often used to describe the tasks and processes that you must complete successfully to resolve grief.
As psychologist Therese Rando, Ph.D, explains in The Work of Grief:
“It demands much more than merely passively experiencing your reactions to loss: you must actively do things and undertake specific courses of thought and action to integrate and resolve your grief in a healthy fashion."
No one wants to feel miserable.
But, as Scientific American reports, feelings like anger and sadness are an important part of life, and new research shows that experiencing and accepting such emotions are vital to our mental health.
Attempting to suppress thoughts can backfire and even diminish our sense of contentment.
Professional counselor Tori Rodriguez recommends: “Instead of backing away from negative emotions, accept them. Acknowledge how you are feeling without rushing to change your emotional state.
Many people find it helpful to breathe slowly and deeply while learning to tolerate strong feelings or to imagine the feelings as floating clouds, as a reminder that they will pass. I often tell my clients that a thought is just a thought and a feeling just a feeling, nothing more.”
Assemble your allies
Grief from pet loss can be a very isolating experience.
Grief is internal, a spinning constellation of emotional and physical reactions to loss that is as unique as our complex personalities. Not only can others not truly feel it, they are incapable of even fully understanding whatwe are feeling.
But, if they have suffered great loss themselves, they will likely know that you are feeling something very real and deep and can be an ally in your grief.
Find at least one safe person you can talk to about your loss. If you can’t identify someone who is safe, call your veterinarian and ask for the name of another pet owner who recently experienced a loss, or look into joining a support group specifically for pet loss. Also, check out these websites: the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement; and the Pet Loss Grief Support website, which has chat rooms and online memorial services.
Grieving the Loss of a Pet By Julie Axelrod
Some people will not help at all, even when they try to be sympathetic.
It is common for others to try to console you by saying things like: “Why don’t you go down to the shelter and get a new pet?”
Or, worse: “You’ve got to pull yourself together and get over this. It’s just an animal.”
Be as patient as possible with such people, they simply do not understand unconditional love. They may never have experienced it and their world is undoubtedly emptier because of that.
You’re the patient
Most of all, be patient with yourself and your healing process.
Your unique grief journey will take as long as it takes, no one can predict how long or short the trek will be. There are plenty of detours and roadblocks along the way and few shortcuts.
You may be able to resolve more of the pain of grief by moving toward the next step on the path of pet loss – mourning – the active, external expression of your love.
To most of us, the words “grief” and “mourning” are interchangeable. Though both make up part of the path through pet loss, they are opposites.
In Will I grieve or will I mourn, Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt describes grief as “the constellation of internal thoughts and feelings we have when someone we love dies.” He describes grief as a “container” holding the ideas, emotions and images of your experience following loss – your internal reactions.
Mourning, conversely, is when you take the pet loss grief you have inside and express it outside yourself. “Grief gone public,” Dr. Wolfelt calls it.
The dawn of mourning
As social creatures, the passing of a relative, friend, or other member of our tribe changes all of us. We naturally feel the need to communicate and share our common loss.
Public grieving – mourning – has been part of mankind’s experiences for millennia. The oldest human burial sites discovered often contain remnants of tools, weapons, and food left to help the departed in the afterlife.
Almost as common are flowers, jewelry and images to help the survivors in this life to mourn their loss with ritualized symbols of honor and love.
Rituals and religions
Death and its meaning are integral parts of most of the estimated 4,200 religions practiced in this world. Each has its own rituals, solemn public ceremonies that follow a prescribed pattern, to mourn the death of loved ones.
Christians hold wakes and masses and elaborate internments. Jews sit Shiva. Hindus and Buddhists, who believe in reincarnation, still have periods of ritual mourning for the loss of that incarnation.
Over generation after generation, humans have learned that the rituals of active mourning for other humans offers great consolation, bonding, and spiritually and emotionally healing.
Unfortunately, most societies do not extend that wisdom to the death of animals.
Usually, children are allowed, even encouraged, to publicly mourn the loss of a pet. Short of fobbing them off with the old “gone to a big farm upstate to romp and play” story, adults know that creating a pet’s grave, drawing pictures and even writing letters to a lost pet, and other pet-death rituals, are the surest way to help a child process what may be a first real encounter with mortality.
But as we age our hearts are expected to harden – and society gets less supportive of more than a reasonable, unfussy adult dollop of grief over a pet’s passing.
People tend to get progressively less tolerant of us as time (and grief) drags on. Some may even start to question our sanity.
You’re not crazy, you’re kind
It is true that grief attracts grief, with the death of a beloved animal sometimes stirring up a tsunami of other unresolved emotions that have been building inside us, and this could lead to true mental problems such as clinical depression.
But in the VAST majority of cases, you are not only sane to mourn your pet loss, you are smarter than others who bottle their feelings up, perhaps leading to cancer, heart disease, strokes and other ills.
Not only are you not crazy, you’re exemplary:one of the rare ones who is brave enough to commit to deep love – knowing that the loss of it will hurt badly someday.
Ways to mourn
Pet loss rituals can (and should) be very personal, so look to things that you know give you comfort and a feeling of expression – music, dancing, poetry, art, photography, being in nature.
And these are some of the ways that have proven helpful for many mourners:
• Funerals and memorial services are the traditional way to memorialize death.
Whether as humble as scattering ashes on a pet’s favorite spot or as elaborate as maintaining a plot in a pet cemetery complete with marble headstone, no other death ritual has comforted as many throughout mankind’s history.
• You may wish to send out a death announcement or create a public obituary.
Some sources for free pet obituaries:
• A video, slideshow or photo album can be healing to create, view and share.
• Writing a personal journal about your pet and your experiences together can offer you a safe way to air your emotions, thoughts and memories.
• A shorter alternate to writing a journal is to compose a love letter to your lost friend, 2-4 pages explaining what you most wish you could express to your pet today.
• A candle ceremony can be a moving shared experience. Here's how and why to hold a candle ceremony to celebrate your pet.
• Donate to charity. Make a donation to the Humane Society, your local shelter, or another group that does good for animals. Pay your pet’s love forward.
There is no last step on the path to pet loss.
As long as you feel love for your missing animal, you will feel some degree of sadness.
If you have successfully grieved and mourned the loss, though, eventually your life should go back to normal – a new normal without your companion in it day to day.
The loss will be felt but bearable. Memories will be gentler. You’ll think of your friend with a smile more often than a tear.
Some people find that permanently incorporating symbols of or memorials to their pets into their lives and surroundings brings added comfort through the years following their bereavement.
Memorializing your missing friend has several healing benefits:
• It keeps the animal there in a tangible, physical way;
• It serves as a reminder of faithful, selfless love and perhaps inspires us to practice it more often ourselves;
• It helps lessen guilt or hesitation we might feel about moving on with our lives and being happy – leaving the friend behind.
What pet memorial?
The memorials you choose to incorporate into your life can range from elaborate, such as maintaining a grave in a professional pet cemetery complete with carved marble tombstone, to the simple, such as a pretty rock with your friend’s name hand-carved on it displayed in your garden.
A personalized candle is one pet memorial that we offer at Furever.Co. Many people find that it acts as a bright focal point for memories, meditation and prayer.
The only criteria is that the memorial gives you, and those who share love for your animal, a feeling a comfort and solace when they see it.
Other memorials that are popular include:
• Planting a tree in your pet’s honor.
• A blooming indoor plant (orchids are wonderful) symbolizing your love.
• Framed photographs prominently displayed.
• A pet portrait created by an artist.
•A special box to hold the pet’s mementos – toys, collar, tags and so on. One comes with our I-Care Packages for Pet Loss.
• Some people literally carry their pet with them always by wearing jewelry that holds a tiny bit of a pet’s ashes (cremains).
• A special urn, box or other container for cremains.
• Ashes can even be transformed into diamonds to wear.
• Celebrating special holidays, events or dates, such as the departed pet’s birthday, can keep their memory alive in a rewarding way.
World Pet Memorial Dayis celebrated the second Sunday in June and National Pet Memorial Dayis observed in the US the second Sunday in September.
My family makes a big deal about the year-end holidays and it would not be a joyous Christmas and New Year if all our pets didn’t share it with us. By hanging ornaments depicting each of them, we make sure that our missing dogs Anya, Bailey and Heidi are there in spirit to celebrate with us.
Best wishes on your journey!
However you choose to keep the memory of a cherished pet alive, may it bring you peace and pleasure as you continue your path through life.
In When Your Pet Dies: A Guide to Mourning, Remembering and Healing, Dr. Alan Wolfelt reminds us:
“In many ways, depression and grief are similar… The central difference is that while grief is a normal, natural, and healthy process, clinical depression is not.
If you suspect you are clinically depressed, it is critically important that you take steps to get help. Untreated depression can raise your risk for a number of additional health problems. It also may prevent you from moving forward in your journey through grief. You deserve to get help so you can continue to mourn in ways to help you heal.”