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For many of us who have pets, losing them to death feels as devastating as losing a family member or best friend. People who don’t have pets don’t tend to “get” this, but those who do really understand the profound sense of loss. Our pets are often like a member of our family, so when we lose them, we feel immense grief.
Why Do We Love Them So?
The pure love and depth of the relationship we may have with our dog, cat, rabbit, is real, and the love we receive from them is unconditional. In fact, how often have we heard something like:
I wish I had the unconditional love from my partner / friend / parent that I have from my dog?
The seemingly simple nature of the relationship with an animal can make it all the more devastating when a death occurs.
The joy received through the connection or even just watching our pet do something cute or funny is amazing. Animals can be so in tune with our emotions, displaying a very keen energetic sensitivity.
If we are feeling sad or upset, they will come and put their head on our knee, or rub up against us, in order to give support. There is a real closeness that we feel through this relationship. When the pet is gone it is truly a large hole in our lives.
Everyone Grieves Differently
As with the death of a person, we all experience the pain and loss in different ways. We might be weepy or emotionally wrought, or we might feel anxious, nervous or even physically sick.
As Dr. Susan Dawson, psychologist and expert on human-animal relationships, says: It is useful to know some of us are affective (emotional) grievers and our grief is very obvious to others… however some us are instrumental grievers and keep our emotions to ourselves, preferring instead to focus on tasks like sorting out a pet’s cremation or burial.
When this author’s amazing German Sheppard Breeze died, I took time off from work because it was so painful and I needed some time to move through the beginning of the grieving process. It was important to be with the pain and to just allow for it.
The grieving process was certainly not over when I returned to work, however that time was necessary to experience real feelings and not be distracted by others.
Grief Is Not A Linear Process
We might also experience grief differently on different days, one moment being angry, the other in denial that our pet is truly gone. This new grief might also bring up other losses we have had in our lives, and if we have not dealt with those emotionally, then the loss of our beloved animal might trigger a renewed sense of pain from an older loss.
Another possible emotional, painful complication of losing a pet is making the decision to let go of them, either because they are ill or old and not able to live like they are used to. It is probably one of the most difficult decisions to make in our lives.
With Breeze, I wished that she’d had a natural death so I wouldn’t have had to make such a huge choice, however no such luck. When we knew it was time to make this devastating, heart-wrenching decision, we were blessed to have a vet who was willing to come to our home, which is the place in which both Breeze and I had so much joy and felt comfortable.
So What Is Important To Know About The Grieving Process For A Pet?
- Surround yourself with people who understand your love for your pet and who can hold the space through the loss.
- Conversely, steer clear of people who don’t understand your loss so you do not feel the need to explain how you are feeling.
- If you do have to make a decision to let go of a pet, ask the vet if they would be willing to come to your home, if this feels right to you.
- Remind yourself that it is okay to be wherever you are in the process – there is no “right” or “wrong” way to grieve, however keeping it bottled inside may be harmful to your own health in the long run
Some people think that getting a new pet immediately after their pet passes is a way to not feel the pain. This is not generally a good idea because it short-circuits the grieving process of the pet that we lost. That pain needs to be experienced in order to move forward.
Other people might say “I’m never going to get another pet because I can’t possibly go through that again.” This is a very natural reaction to losing a pet that you love. When we are in the throes of grief, this is not uncommon. What is important to remember is the joy that you had– would you really want to give up any minute of that in order to avoid the loss?
Timing is everything when deciding on a new pet. It’s very individual; we really need to tune in to where we are emotionally and what the motivation is for a new pet. Too early on in the process may be unrealistic, however closing ourselves off to the possibility of “never” may also hurt us.
Many people come into therapy to receive support in help working through the loss of a beloved pet. Sometimes they feel embarrassed or uncomfortable with how they are feeling because they may have people in their lives who have minimized their feelings, possibly saying things like “it’s just a dog” or “it’s just a cat”.
However, speaking with an experienced psychotherapist can really help to talk through feelings of grief and loss. At Nassau Guidance & Counseling, we are experienced – both personally and professionally – with helping to find a way through the emotional turmoil of loss, and we invite you to share with us.