We encounter loss in all sorts of ways…the death of a loved one, the end of a friendship, the loss of a job… One that we often experience is the loss of a pet, either through death or the end of a relationship–and the grief that comes from this. This special, and often unrecognized loss, is not easy. So, how do we cope?
Our Culture’s Ideas About Pet Loss–Disenfranchised Grief
When a person dies, we usually know what to do. We plan/attend some kind of service. Perhaps we bring food to the grieving family. Often, we send a sympathy card or donation to the requested charity. However, there are types of losses when there aren’t clear-cut norms on how to behave. Pet loss fits into this type of loss. We are grieving, but others don’t understand why we are feeling so bad. This is disenfranchised grief.
After telling a friend or co-worker that your pet is no longer in your life, you may receive the following remarks:
- “Why are you still upset? It’s only a dog/cat/bird/snake, ferret….”
- “Why don’t you go and get another one?”
- “He/she was really old/sick, so you had no choice but to ‘put him down.'”
The problem with these types of comments is that they don’t recognize the essential loss of our loved one and the grief that you are feeling. While people don’t often know what to say after a human dies (often due to lack of knowledge and discomfort); I can’t imagine telling someone to get a new partner right after the death of the love of your life!
Why We Grieve the Loss of our Pets
We grieve the objects, relationships and living things that mean something to us. Our pets fit into a special category. They provide unconditional love and companionship. For some of us, they fill the role of children or best friend. We fit our lives and routines around theirs. When they are gone, that means a lot of change.
It can become even more complicated when the loss occurs because of the end of the relationship. Our ex-partner has ‘custody’ of our pet. We’re grieving not only the loss of our pet but also the loss of the human relationship. It’s one thing to recognize that our animal family member is no longer on this earth, but to know that he/she is alive and inaccessible to us is another.
Grief is Grief…No Matter What We Have Lost
While everyone has different ways of grieving, J. William Worden in his book, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, suggests that the following four tasks are part of the grieving process.
- Accept the reality of the loss.
- Process the pain of grief.
- Adjust to the world without what we have lost.
- Maintain a connection with what we’ve lost, while at the same time starting a new life.
These tasks apply whatever loss we have suffered, and in working through them we find ways to cope.
7 Things You Can Do When You Lose a Pet
- Take the time you need to recognize what has happened. You have suffered a loss, and that can be an emotional shock. Even if your pet’s loss was anticipated, the reality is the same. Taking time may mean booking some quiet time for yourself away from work or outside activities.
- If possible, think about what you want to do with your pet’s belongings before your pet’s death happens. A big grief trigger can be coming home to see your pet’s leash or bowl. Maybe your pet’s possessions can stay with a friend until you are able to decide what to do with them.
- Recognize that there may be big emotions. Sadness, anger, guilt, loneliness can be part of the grief process. What you are experiencing is normal. One way to cope with them is to let them flow through you–they will pass. If you find that the emotions are overwhelming, physical activity (such as going for a walk or run) can help.
- Talk to friends or family members who understand what you are going through. Other’s who have lost a beloved pet tend to get it and may be willing to walk with you on your journey.
- Increase your self-care. When we are grieving we tend to stop taking care of ourselves. Make sure that you are eating healthy food, and getting enough rest and exercise.
- Create new routines. Our pets influence our routines as we plan our days around feeding times, walks and play time. Think about how you can find ways to put new (and healthy) activities in those times in your day. For example, go for a walk at the usual time, and change your route or ask a friend or family member to go with you.
- Find a way to honour your pet. Some people create a ritual as a way to say goodbye. Others keep their pet’s ashes or send the ashes to an artist so they can be included in a piece of artwork, glass or pottery.
In time, you will recover from the grief of losing your pet. However, it may take time and the journey is an individual one. If you find that you are getting stuck in this process, please reach out for support–either from friends, family or a therapist.
And now…since we’re talking about pets…what’s not to like about kittens and laser pointers? Enjoy!