And we got old... dealing with the loss of a pet
In May, the day that I had long dreaded came to pass and I had to say good-bye to my best friend who had been at my side for more than 13 years. I prayed and hoped that he would die of a heart-attack and that I wouldn’t have to be the one that had to make the decision. In fact, I sat down with him and told him that he needed to leave on his terms and not mine. Afterwards I realized how silly I had been because, no matter what or how painful or how tired a dog will never leave us behind, they will never willingly leave.
Grief from the loss of a pet is one of the most understated and misunderstood emotional traumas’ and will continue to be so until society at large starts to understand the emotional bond between humans and their pets. When I lost my first dog, I was angry, impatient with the pettiness of humans and I quit my job. Only in retrospect could I see that I was depressed and hurting and that in addition I was at war with myself…. I had been conditioned by society to believe that the death of a pet was sad but not traumatic and so it was difficult for me to accept or understand the depth of grief I was feeling. Now I know different and I am gentler with myself and I understand that there is a process of mourning that I need to go through and that the depth of the grief I feel is completely natural.
Research and Science backs up the fact that losing a pet is the same as losing a family member. A study in Science from 2015 found that when people people gazed into a dog’s eyes, both the person and the dog had increased levels of oxytocin. Oxytocin, sometimes called the love hormone, regulates social interactions. It’s released when humans stare into each other’s eyes, and when parents look at their newborn children.”
The grieving process after the loss of a pet
Grieving is a highly individual experience. Some people find grief following the loss of a pet comes in stages, where they experience different feelings such as denial, anger, guilt, depression, and eventually acceptance and resolution. Others find that their grief is more cyclical, coming in waves, or a series of highs and lows. The lows are likely to be deeper and longer at the beginning and then gradually become shorter and less intense as time goes by. Still, even years after a loss, a sight, a sound, or a special anniversary can spark memories that trigger a strong sense of grief.
The grieving process happens only gradually. It can’t be forced or hurried—and there is no “normal” timetable for grieving. Some people start to feel better in weeks or months. For others, the grieving process is measured in years. Whatever your grief experience, it’s important to be patient with yourself and allow the process to naturally unfold.
Feeling sad, shocked, or lonely is a normal reaction to the loss of a beloved pet. Exhibiting these feelings doesn’t mean you are weak or your feelings are somehow misplaced. It just means that you’re mourning the loss of an animal you loved, so you shouldn’t feel ashamed.
Trying to ignore your pain or keep it from surfacing will only make it worse in the long run. For real healing, it is necessary to face your grief and actively deal with it. By expressing your grief, you’ll likely need less time to heal than if you withhold or “bottle up” your feelings. Write about your feelings and talk about them with others who are sympathetic to your loss.
Coping with the grief of pet loss
Sorrow and grief are normal and natural responses to death. Like grief for our friends and loved ones, grief for our animal companions can only be dealt with over time, but there are healthy ways to cope with the pain. Here are some suggestions:
Don’t let anyone tell you how to feel, and don’t tell yourself how to feel either. Your grief is your own, and no one else can tell you when it’s time to “move on” or “get over it.” Let yourself feel whatever you feel without embarrassment or judgment. It’s okay to be angry, to cry or not to cry. It’s also okay to laugh, to find moments of joy, and to let go when you’re ready.
Reach out to others who have lost pets. Check out online message boards, pet loss hotlines, and pet loss support groups—see the Resources section below for details. If your own friends and family members are not sympathetic about pet loss, find someone who is. Often, another person who has also experienced the loss of a beloved pet may better understand what you’re going through.
Rituals can help healing. A funeral can help you and your family members openly express your feelings. Ignore people who think it’s inappropriate to hold a funeral for a pet, and do what feels right for you.
Create a legacy. Preparing a memorial, planting a tree in memory of your pet, compiling a photo album or scrapbook, or otherwise sharing the memories you enjoyed with your pet, can create a legacy to celebrate the life of your animal companion. Remembering the fun and love you shared with your pet can help you to eventually move on.
Look after yourself. The stress of losing a pet can quickly deplete your energy and emotional reserves. Looking after your physical and emotional needs will help you get through this difficult time. Spend time face to face with people who care about you, eat a healthy diet, get plenty of sleep, and exercise regularly to release endorphins and help boost your mood.
If you have other pets, try to maintain your normal routine. Surviving pets can also experience loss when a pet dies, or they may become distressed by your sorrow. Maintaining their daily routines, or even increasing exercise and play times, will not only benefit the surviving pets but can also help to elevate your mood and outlook, too.
Seek professional help if you need it. If your grief is persistent and interferes with your ability to function, your doctor or a mental health professional can evaluate you for depression.
Dealing with the loss of a pet when others devalue
One aspect that can make grieving for the loss of a pet so difficult is that pet loss is not appreciated by everyone. Some friends and family may say, “What’s the big deal? It’s just a pet!” Some people assume that pet loss shouldn’t hurt as much as human loss, or that it is somehow inappropriate to grieve for an animal. They may not understand because they don’t have a pet of their own or are unable to appreciate the companionship and love that a pet can provide.
- Don’t argue with others about whether your grief is appropriate or not.
- Accept the fact that the best support for your grief may come from outside your usual circle of friends and family members.
- Seek out others who have lost pets; those who can appreciate the magnitude of your loss, and may be able to suggest ways of getting through the grieving process.
My heart will always wear the paw prints left by you – Duma 18 February 2007 – 15 May 2020