Those of us who have ever loved an animal companion know that saying goodbye is a heart-wrenching experience. “People are sometimes astonished at how much such a loss hurts,” says Estelle Giles-Monroe, LCSW-R, leader of pet bereavement support groups at the Animal Protective Foundation in Scotia, New York, and Upstate Veterinary Specialties in Latham, New York. “The grief may feel worse than losing a person because our connection to animals is unique and they offer us such complete and unconditional love.”
Although it seems like you’re never going to feel better, you can work through your grief in a healthy way.
Talk about your pet
Seek the support of sympathetic friends who have similar bonds with their pets. Think of happy and positive memories of your pet, instead of focusing solely on the end of your animal’s life. Attend a pet bereavement support group or call a pet loss support hotline, like the one offered by Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine (607-253-3932).
Acknowledge your emotions
“Grief doesn’t come in stages. It’s more like a loop with recurring feelings,” says Giles-Monroe. You may experience anger or denial that it can’t be true. There’s often guilt about your decision-making— you should have done more, you could have taken your pet to a specialist, if only you hadn’t agreed to the surgery that your pet didn’t survive.
You may experience physical symptoms as well, such as insomnia, fatigue or lack of appetite. Don’t try to ignore your feelings; you must work through them in order to accept and move beyond them.
Memorialize your pet
Find ways to honor your pet by creating a memory album or planting a flowering shrub or tree in your garden. Some people sew quilts or make t-shirts or tote bags featuring photos of their pets. Others have a piece of jewelry made from their pet’s ashes. You also may consider a donation of time or money in your pet’s memory to a shelter, breed rescue or other pet-centered organization.
Help your children process their grief
It’s fine to cry in front of your kids and explain why you’re sad. If appropriate, incorporate your family’s religious beliefs in a memorial service for your pet. Younger kids can draw a picture of the pet; older kids can write stories. For many kids, losing a pet is their first encounter with mortality, so the experience provides a valuable lesson about love and loss, says Giles-Monroe.
Reach out for professional support
If you still feel stuck in your grief or aren’t able to function throughout the day after a few months—or if you ever have thoughts of harming yourself—seek professional counseling. Sometimes the death of a pet triggers memories of past losses or brings to the surface other upsetting life events such as a painful divorce. But there is help. “The pain will evolve in time,” says Giles-Monroe. “Sometimes you just need someone to help you heal.”
By Arricca SanSone