Pet loss can shake you to your core. When your canine friend dies, it’s normal to feel devastated, racked with grief, and filled with overwhelming sadness.
For owners, each fur baby isn’t “just a dog.” They’re beloved members of the family that provide unconditional love and support.
This post will explain pet loss, grief, and how to cope with losing a beloved pet.
The experience of pet loss
People who never had a dog or cat before may not understand why grieving the loss of a pet is so jarring. But it is.
No matter the breed, losing a pet can hurt so much! It’s difficult because owners share an intense love and bond with their animal companions.
The death of a pet is a form of trauma. It can even hurt as much as the loss of a relative.
Ever wondered how it feels like losing a fur baby? Check out the clip below and hear it straight from pet owners.
Factors contributing to strong attachments to your pets
Owners become attached to their pets under many different circumstances. Whether the pup was bought, rescued, or was a gift, pet ownership almost always results in a deep emotional attachment.
However, there are specific factors that contribute to strong attachments with your pets:
- Owners who are experiencing a hard time in life
- Pets who were childhood companions
- Pets who are the most significant support sources in their owners’ lives
- Pets who have been unreasonably anthropomorphized
- Pets who symbolize other important people in their owners’ lives, such as children or partners who have passed away
- Pets who symbolize important times in their owners’ lives
- Service dogs like therapy dogs
- Pets who have memorable interaction with their owners through extensive training or hunting
- Rescue dogs saved from death, near-death, or dire living situations
Similarities and differences between losing a pet and losing a loved one
Dog owners often get dismissed when grieving the loss of their beloved pets.
People who never owned a dog trivialize the real trauma brought about by the experience. But, can we really compare the death of a pet with the death of a loved one?
- The same grief stages apply in human and animal cases of bereavement: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
- Bonds that give us pleasure and enhance our lives in dramatic ways will also cause dramatic pain and loss when severed.
- People suffering from loss must take ample time to heal and process their grief. Grievers need time to adapt to their new lives without the person or animal they have lost.
- One never “gets over” the loss of a beloved companion.
- One should frame grief as a normal and healthy experience.
- Grieving dog owners have as much of a right to say goodbye as those who have lost a human loved one. Goodbye rituals aid the process of letting go.
- Sudden, unexpected, and unexplained deaths are harder to accept. This is even more true if the animal or human lost is young or middle-aged.
- An animal’s death sometimes severs the last connection one has to a significant other who has died or left. That previous death or departure is grieved once again.
- Pangs of sadness will recur after the initial grieving period is over. This can occur on birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries or while visiting places that trigger memories.
- Pet loss is not totally understood and accepted by society. Thus, there is less formal support and guidance for mourners than in the case of human loss. People who don’t have an affinity for animals may respond with “Get another one,” or “It was just a dog.” These inappropriate statements exemplify the false assumption that all pets are replaceable. Comments like these make grievers feel guilty and stupid, sadder and more upset.
- Euthanization of animals is legal and accepted by society. This practice causes immense emotional turmoil and inner conflict for pet owners, stirring up questions of morality. Owners may feel guilty for “playing God.”
- People have a hard time acknowledging that our animals are essential to our physical and mental well-being. This denial causes added emotional confusion and turmoil after the loss of a cat or dog.
- People have a hard time wondering where their animals go after death. Often, whatever beliefs we ascribe to a human’s death do not translate to the loss of a dog. Do they go to pet heaven? Does such a place exist? Questions like these impede peace of mind for those suffering from grief.
The grieving process after losing a pet
As mentioned, the grieving process has five stages — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — all of which take time to work through.
Everyone moves on in their own time, and it doesn’t happen overnight.
When one expresses one’s grief, the healing time is shorter. When one restricts one’s suffering, however, its manifestations can last much longer.
Each stage’s intensity and duration depend on various factors, such as age, personality, circumstance, and the human-animal bond’s power.
There are two types of manifestations or responses to grief: Adaptive and maladaptive. Adaptive responses are those that help reduce the stress of grief.
On the other hand, maladaptive coping encompasses post-loss behaviors that are dysfunctional, self-destructive, and problematic.
Adaptive manifestations of grief
Adaptive or normal coping behaviors manifest in five categories: physical, intellectual, emotional, social, and spiritual.
These behaviors involve confronting the problem (loss) and cultivating healthy emotional responses.
Crying, sobbing, sighing, aching, trouble sleeping, fatigue, a feeling of numbness, and a sense of shock.
Denial, disbelief, confusion, restlessness, inability to concentrate, visual/auditory/olfactory hallucinations, and preoccupation with loss.
Anger, sadness, guilt, depression, loneliness, helplessness, desire to blame yourself or veterinary medicine, and a sense of relief.
Withdrawal, irritability, stress, alienation, anxiety, feelings of isolation, and a desire to move or relocate.
Bargaining with God or other religious entities, shaken religious beliefs, strengthened religious beliefs, meaningful dreams, and paranormal experiences.
Maladaptive grief responses and behaviors
Maladaptive or complicated grief responses inhibit the normal grieving process or prevent people from working through their grief.
These responses can occur due to complicating factors such as no previous experience with death, other recent losses, poor coping skills, little social support, and not being present at death, religious convictions.
Maladaptive grief responses come in many forms, such as procrastination, escapism, daydreaming, emotional numbing, substance abuse, binge-eating, self-harm, depression, and excessive thinking about the past and what you could have done differently.
Four steps to healing
While there’s no catch-all recipe that guarantees speedy recovery, there are four steps you can take to ensure a healthy grieving process.
These steps are suggestions which you can apply according to your judgment. Your state of mind and personal feelings will dictate how you choose to approach the grieving process.
1. Breathe — Allow yourself to respond to the grief
You’ve lost your best friend, and you don’t know what to do with yourself. The truth is, you shouldn’t be doing anything at all. Allow yourself some time to process the initial shock of what happened.
Everyone responds differently once they find out that their special doggo is gone. You might start to cry, or you may feel a sense of numbness take over your body.
Whatever you’re feeling, do not forget to breathe. Take a moment to be quiet, and take a few long, deep breaths.
2. Focus on the immediate next step
Several things may be racing through your mind. And the urgency to check a bunch of boxes might be your way of avoiding the harsh fact that your pet has passed away.
Instead of rushing to complete a list of chores, address your state of mind first. Taking on too many responsibilities after a loss can worsen your mental health and exacerbate your anxiety.
Return to your breathing and come up with one next step to focus on. It should be whatever’s the most important thing to you. Something that will help aid your healing.
If you need more time, take it. If you want to sit with your pet and hold them for a few minutes, do so. You have every right to steer your grieving process in ways you see fit.
3. Utilize support systems
If others are devaluing your loss of a pet, reach out to fellow dog owners. Talk to a friend, partner, or family member who can share the same sentiments.
Tell them you’re having a difficult time, and ask them to do their best to be there for you.
One thing to remember is that everyone grieves differently. What works for one person may not work for another.
You’ll need to prepare for the possibility that your friend may not have all the answers or even say something that upsets you further. Remember, though, that whoever you have called on might feel helpless, too.
What you need now is a calming presence in your life. If you find your friend is not saying the right things to calm you, you can ask them to sit with you in silence.
Sometimes, what we need most is not a speech about life and death, but someone to be there.
If you don’t have someone to reach out to, you can join an online pet loss support group. Try the Pet Loss Grief Support Chat Room at Rainbow Bridge or the Pet Loss Grief Support Message Board.
You can also try grief counseling to help you manage your loss. Grief counselors can lend a sympathetic ear and provide actionable advice.
4. Take the next step
You may have to arrange some memorial service for your pet and let your friends know about it.
Memorializing your pet with a framed photo or a headstone in your garden can help begin the challenging journey towards acceptance. It’s also a way for you to express your feelings and say goodbye.
Others create a social media page in their pet’s honor. You can store your precious photos of your beloved dog to remember the good times you shared.
Whatever your next step is, making it happen won’t be easy when your heart is sore. This is why the third step is so important.
Establishing new routines and patterns can also help you cope. Get plenty of sleep, prepare healthy meals, take some time off, find healthy outlets for your emotions like starting a new hobby or going to the gym.
Find reasons to smile again, and that includes reflecting on the happy times you shared with your pet.
Pet loss and grief resources
There are nonprofit pet loss hotlines out there for people suffering from their furry friend’s death.
If you’re into books, the Dog Heaven by Cynthia Rylant, The Goodbye Book by Todd Parr, and The Rainbow Bridge… a dog’s story by Judith Kristen are some helpful literature that can help you teach your kids to cope with the experience.
For teenagers and adults, When Your Pet Dies: A Guide To Mourning, Remembering & Healing by Alan Wolfelt, Goodbye, Friend: Healing Wisdom for Anyone Who Has Ever Lost a Pet by Gary Kowalski, and Coping with Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet by Moira Anderson are some popular books to help you cope with grief.
People without support systems tend to reach out to their therapists for help. Suppose you’re a therapist looking to learn how to help others.
In that case, The Pet Loss Companion: Healing Advice from Family Therapists Who Lead Pet Loss Groups by Ken Dolan-Del Vecchio and The Grief Recovery Handbook for Pet Loss by Russell Friedman will come in handy.
Helping other members of the family to cope with grief
How about cheering up someone who’s lost a pet? This is one of many FAQs when it comes to helping family members cope with grief.
Remember that pet loss can have a profound effect on the psyche. So, making others happy isn’t the goal. Instead, provide a sympathetic ear and a calm presence for the person in grief.
Focus on what NOT to say. There are some platitudes people try on their grieving friends that are inappropriate and offensive. Despite having good intentions, they can also be cliches and unhelpful.
Avoid saying, “You can get another dog,” “Life goes on,” “Everything happens for a reason,” “Your pet is in a better place,” or “I know how you feel.”
Instead, you can try something like, “There is nothing I can say to make you feel better. Just know that I am here for you.”
The best way to console someone is to assure them that you’re there for support without devaluing their experience.
Consider getting them a sentimental gift. A keychain with the dog’s name on it or a picture of your friend and his/her dog is a thoughtful present that can give a pleasant memory for the person in mourning.
How to help seniors deal with pet loss
Losing a dog can trigger painful memories of previous losses for older people. Those who live alone can also struggle to find a sense of purpose without their beloved pets.
We recommend interacting with your friends and family and using the pet loss support hotlines as often as you need. You may also want to volunteer at your local humane society.
Caring for a pet at a shelter can provide seniors with a sense of purpose and companionship.
Help grieving children understand pet loss
For kids who had their first encounter with death may blame their parents, themselves, or the vet for not saving their pet. Children may also become depressed or scared that others in their family may pass away too.
Help them deal with the feelings of profound loss by expressing your own grief. This way, you can reassure the child that it is okay to be sad.
You can also assist them in working through their feelings by talking about it.
Will my other pets mourn?
Animals are intuitive creatures and will notice right away if another pet is absent. They may whimper, refuse to eat or drink, or seem more tired than usual.
Like you, they’re also mourning and can become more depressed alongside you.
Make the situation less distressing by giving your other pets tons of care and keep their regular routines.
Try new activities that you and your dog can enjoy together to help you both work through your grief.
Things to remember during pet loss
The deafening silence in your home after the death of a pet may seem overwhelming. Your dog companion used to occupy not just an emotional room but a physical room as well.
It will take a while to get used to their absence at home. Being aware of this new reality can help prepare you for a flood of emotions.
The bond you have with your pet is a unique and special one, and it can be challenging to understand by others.
It’s important to remember that no one else can feel that deep connection with your dog that has made losing them so tough.
Grief can’t be ranked. Some people try to manage their grief and grade it as good or bad, or compare their sorrow to others.
This is normal behavior but should not be encouraged. Recognize that your individual experience is incomparable to that of other people.
Questions of spirituality tend to arise, and you may find yourself wondering about the after-life or questioning your beliefs. Remember that this is a normal part of the grieving process.
Euthanasia: Making the decision
Putting a pet to sleep is one of the most heartbreaking decisions dog owners have to make. To assuage any regrets and self-blaming, inform yourself about the euthanasia process.
Your vet will give its recommendation as to your dog’s readiness.
It may be a hard pill to swallow but consider how happy your dog seems, activity level, response to care and affection, critical injuries, and terminal illness when deciding if you should put your dog to sleep.
If he’s suffering and his condition worsens his quality of life, this is the time to consider euthanasia.
Your family’s feelings will also come into play, as you’ll want to do what’s best for everyone involved.
There’s some dispute as to whether dogs can sense when they’re going to die. Some owners report that their dogs were more peaceful in the days leading up to their death or that they were more attentive with their owners.
While there’s no evidence to back this up, it’s not unimaginable that dogs are intuitive enough to sense what’s going on in their bodies.
Knowing what to expect when putting your dog to sleep can help curb feelings of grief you experience after the procedure.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, euthanasia involves the injection of a drug that induces death.
Your vet may give your pet a tranquilizer first to relax him/her. After the euthanasia drug has been administered, your pet will fall unconscious.
Then, it’s a quick and painless death that takes no longer than 2 minutes.
Your pet may move his legs for a moment after the injection. But, don’t worry, this doesn’t mean they’re suffering.
Many owners wonder what happens to their pets after euthanasia. If you opt for cremation, your pet will be stored in a cold place at the veterinary clinic.
Someone from the crematorium will then collect the body and transport it back to their facilities.
Some owners opt to bury their dogs at a pet cemetery. In this case, the body will stay with the veterinary clinic until you have arranged a coffin for your deceased pet.
The funeral service will then fetch the body from the clinic before the burial.
If you’re wondering how to explain pet euthanasia to a child, start by being honest. Tell them that your pet is ill and suffering and that you can end his pain in a gentle way.
You can tell them that when you love someone, you have to make difficult decisions.
Children feed off their parents’ reactions. If you’re calm about the decision, your child will be too. If you’re sad and healthily deal with that emotion, your child will follow suit.
Moving on: How soon should you adopt another pet?
Deciding to get another dog is a personal decision and requires considerable deliberation. But it’s best to wait until you’re prepared to open your home and heart to a new pet.
You can start volunteering at a pet shelter to help you decide if you’re ready to get a dog again.
The COVID pandemic has left many animals without homes, so lending a helping hand can be rewarding for someone suffering from loss.
Do you ever get over pet loss?
While you may never get over the loss of your pet, you will get through it.
By utilizing your support systems and practicing healthy grieving mechanisms, you can learn how to adapt to your new circumstances without forgetting the love and friendship you shared with your dog.
If you have insights on dealing with pet loss, please leave a comment below. We love to hear from dog owners!