What You Go Through—and What You Can Do—When Grieving the Loss of a Pet
We make our pets part of our lives, loving them immensely while knowing their time on Earth is much shorter than ours. That's significant, says Leslie Stewart, PhD, a licensed counselor and director of the Animal Assisted Intervention program at Idaho State University.
"What an act of love to know that and look at this living thing and say, 'You're worth it,'" Stewart says.
The death of a beloved dog or cat, expected or not, is crushing. And the process of grieving the loss of your pet can be equally difficult. It takes time. It has no schedule. And sometimes experiencing the full range of grief will make your life harder.
"Almost every moment of day-to-day life is changed because of the loss of a pet, and it can be absolutely devastating," says Stewart, who is also a member of the Daily Paws Advisory Board.
The good news: There are things you can do to help your grief— people you can talk to and projects you can do on your own. Taking time to acknowledge your grief is key to accepting your loss and living healthily.
What Happens To You When Your Pet Dies
Whether it's grieving the loss of a pet after euthanasia or after an unexpected accident, your brain will go into "crisis mode" immediately after the death, cutting off access to the part of your brain you use for logistics, scheduling, and judgment, Stewart says.
It's normal and happens to us when we lose our human loved ones, too, but it can make day-to-day tasks harder. You might lose concentration more easily or forget appointments and meals. Don't feel bad about it. It has nothing to do with how strong or resilient you are, Stewart says. It's all biological.
"One thing that I can encourage in general is whatever feelings and reactions come up when you're just getting the news or just facing the situation—whatever is coming up for you: Let it happen. Don't be afraid to let those emotions move through you. That's what they're supposed to do," she says.
This is why it's a good idea to let a close friend or family member know about what you're going through. They'll check in on you and make sure you're still eating. Just as importantly, they're also someone who can listen as you grieve.
In the immediate days after your pet's death—the "acute" phase—you might find yourself on a bit of a knife's edge sometimes, Stewart says. Inconveniences that used to be minor can transform into day-ruining affairs, for example. You might experience more fear, anger, and sadness.
This is when you reach out to someone who can validate your feelings and listen to you relive memories of your life with your pet. You'll always need someone to talk to, whether it's a friend or a mental health professional.
Grieving the Loss of a Pet
There really is no "How to Grieve a Pet" guide out there because grief has no schedule or regard for you. After the immediate aftermath of your pet's passing, you'll have good days and bad. Sadness will arrive in unpredictable waves, and you'll likely experience some of the standard stages of grief.
You go through grief, not around it, but Stewart has some recommendations on how to make the journey a little easier. (For our pet owners with kids, our friends at Parents have some tips for a child grieving the loss of a pet.) Here are three steps that will help you navigate your grief.
Talk with Someone
As we mentioned above, this is what friends are for. Your close friends should understand your relationship with your beloved pet and will listen to you and let you find the meaning in your pet's life, Stewart says. Heck, you can just tell your favorite stories of your pet. Who doesn't love doing that?
Another option: pet loss support groups. You can find them in many cities. They could give you a valuable outlet and an understanding community. Often they lack confidentiality, though, Stewart says. If that's what you need, then setting up in-person or virtual sessions with a mental health professional licensed in "talk therapy" might be better for you.
An important note from Stewart on this topic: It is not uncommon that people experiencing a great loss will have suicidal thoughts. Don't be ashamed if this happens to you. If it does, reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline or other mental health professional for help.
While talking to your friends and family about loss is vital, there are also some things you should do on your own to remember your pet, too.
"I would encourage a balanced approach," Stewart says. Combine solitary reflection and sharing with others so your alone-time thoughts don't become isolating.
One approach you can try on your own: Reading about grief can help you understand what you are physically and emotionally going through. Journaling can help as well, Stewart says. It's a way to keep tabs on yourself and track instances that might trigger sadness or additional grief as time goes on.
You can also create things to help you and others remember your pet. Stewart recommends the likes of memory boxes or photo collages. You can even blog about your loss. You might see a friend post on social media about the death of their pet, so keep in mind that it's part of how they're grieving—maybe even more than it's about notifying their friends.
Memorialize Your Pet
A full-fledged ceremony for a departed pet might seem like a lot, but it might help you the same way it did Stewart, who recently lost her rabbit named Killer. Her kind colleagues helped her put on a virtual funeral, and they buried Killer.
"For me, it felt good. It felt meaningful," she says. "It felt like we honored her. And then to have the support of my friends who understood and had gone through similar things and experienced it as impactfully as I did. That social support was huge."
The bottom line is that you should do something to answer your grief, whether that's as simple as telling a few stories or letting out a few tears. You'll be glad you did in the end.