Coping with the loss of a pet

The bond that we form with animals can be very deep and fulfilling, and the loss of a beloved animal can have an impact on us that is as great, or even greater, than the loss of a family member or friend. This bond is what makes our interactions with animals rich and rewarding, but also what makes the grief process so complicated. The grief can seem to come in waves, may be brought on more intensely by a sight or sound that sparks your memory, and may seem overwhelming at times.

After your pet has died or been lost, it is natural and normal to feel grief and sorrow. The amount of time a person grieves for the loss of their pet may be very different for different people. Although grief is an internal and private response, there are certain stages of grief that most people experience, and not everyone experiences them all or in the same order.

The stages of grief include denial, anger, guilt, depression, acceptance, and resolution. Denial – an unwillingness to accept the fact that your pet has died or that death is unavoidable – may begin when you first learn the seriousness of your animal's illness or injuries. Often, the more sudden the death, the more difficult the loss is to accept and the stronger the denial.

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

Depression is a common experience after the death of a special pet. The tears flow, there are knots in your stomach, and you feel drained of all your energy. Day-to-day tasks can seem impossible to perform and you may feel isolated and alone. Many depressed people will avoid the company of friends and family. It might be hard to get out of bed in the morning, especially if your morning routine involved caring for your pet's needs. Sometimes you may even wonder if you can go on without your pet. The answer is yes, but there are times when special assistance may be helpful in dealing with your loss. Do not feel guilty or weak for seeking professional assistance to help you cope with the grief you feel.

Eventually, you will come to terms with your feelings. You begin to accept your pet's death. Resolution has occurred when you can remember your pet and your time with them without feeling the intense grief and emotional pain you previously felt. Acceptance and resolution are normal and do not mean that you no longer feel a sense of loss, just that you have come to terms with the fact that your pet has died. Even when you have reached resolution and acceptance, feelings of anger, denial, guilt, and depression may reappear. If this does happen, these feelings will usually be less intense, and with time they will be replaced with fond memories.

Although everyone experiences the stages of grief, grieving is always a very personal process. Some people take longer than others to come to terms with denial, anger, guilt, and 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. Family and friends should be reassured that sorrow and grief are normal and natural responses to death.

Just as everyone may grieve differently, people may choose to honor their pet's life in a number of ways. One person may prefer a memorial service or funeral for their pet, while another may prefer a symbol of remembrance, such as a pawprint cast in plaster or stone or a lock of hair from a horse's mane or tail. Whatever you choose to honor your pet and your life together is as personal as your grieving process.

Allow yourself time to grieve and heal, and be thankful that your life was made that much better by sharing it with your beloved pet.