Coping With the Loss of a Pet

Understanding Your Feelings of Loss

After your animal has died or been lost, it is natural and normal to feel grief and sorrow. While grieving is an internal and private response, there are certain shared processes that most people experience. By understanding the grieving process, you will be better prepared to manage your grief and help others in the family who are also sharing the loss.

The Stages of Grief

There are many signs of grief, but not everyone experiences them all or in the same order. You may experience denial, anger, guilt, depression, acceptance and resolution. Your first reaction may be denial – denial that your pet has died. This reaction may occur even before death when you first learn the extent of your animal’s illness or injury. Often, the more sudden the end, the more difficult the loss is to accept.

Anger and guilt often follow denial. This anger can be directed toward people you normally love and respect, including family and your veterinarian. People will often say things they do not mean, perhaps hurting those they do not mean to hurt. You may feel guilty or blame others for not recognizing the illness sooner, not doing something sooner, not being able to afford other types of treatment or for being careless and allowing the animal to be injured.

Depression is also part of the range of emotions experienced after the death of a loved animal. This is the period when you usually feel the greatest sense of loss. The tears flow, there are knots in your stomach and you feel drained of all your energy. Day-to-day tasks can seem impossible. Sometimes you may even ask yourself if you can go on without the animal. The answer is yes, but there are times when special assistance may be helpful.

Eventually, you will come to terms with your feelings; you can begin to resolve and accept your animal’s death. When you have reached a resolution and acceptance, the feelings of anger, denial, guilt and depression may reappear. If this does occur, the intensity of these feelings will be much less, and with time these feelings will be replaced with fond memories.

Family and friends should be reassured that sorrow and grief are normal responses to pet loss. Although the signs of grief apply whether the loss is of an animal or a human loved one, grieving is a personal process. Some people take longer than others to come to terms with denial, anger, guilt or depression, and each loss is different. If you understand that these are normal reactions, you will be better prepared to cope with your feelings and to help others face theirs.

They May Not Understand

Well-meaning family and friends may not realize how important your animal was to you or the intensity of your grief. Comments they make may seem cruel and uncaring. Be honest with yourself and others about how you feel. If despair mounts, talk to someone who will listen about your animal and the illness and death. Talk about your sorrow and the fun times you and your pet shared together, the activities you enjoyed and the meaningful memories.

The Hurt is So Deep

If you or a family member had great difficulty in accepting your animal’s death and cannot resolve feelings of grief and sorrow, you may want to discuss those feelings with a person who is trained to understand the grieving process. Your veterinarian certainly understands the loving relationship you have lost and may be able to suggest animal loss support groups and hotlines, grief counsellors, clergy members, social workers or physicians who can be helpful. Talking about your loss will often help.

The Next Step

Should I Get Another Animal?

The death of a pet can upset you emotionally, especially when euthanasia is involved. Some people may feel they would never want another animal. A new animal may help others overcome the loss more quickly. Just as grief is a personal experience, the decision of when, if ever, to bring a new animal into your home is also a personal one. If a family member is having difficulty accepting the animal’s death, getting a new animal into the house before that person has resolved their grief may imply that the life of the deceased animal was unworthy of the grief still being felt. Family members should agree on the appropriate time to acquire a new animal. Although you can never replace the animal you lost, you can obtain another to share your life with.

Remembering Your Pet

The period from birth to old age is much shorter in pets than in people. Death is part of the life cycle for all creatures. It cannot be avoided, but its impact can be met with understanding and compassion. Try to recall the good times you spent with your pet. By remembering the pleasure of those times, you can realize your pet was worthy of your grief. You may also wish to establish a memorial of some type in honour of your pet.

* Reprinted from the American Veterinary Medical Association 1998