They are there when you get home with a tail wag and happy dance. They are there in the morning while you make your coffee, slowly rubbing against your leg with a quiet meow. They snuggle on the couch with you, share your meals, and offer comfort. And they love you unconditionally. Our pets are ingrained in our days and bring us unfathomable joy, but when we have to say goodbye, the feelings of grief can surprise us with their intensity.
Researchers have learned that losing a pet can be as devastating as losing a human loved one, but we often don’t allow ourselves the same opportunities to grieve them. It can be difficult for non-pet owners to understand how the death of a dog or cat impacts a human, and pet owners often feel guilty or ashamed for being so sad about their pet.
If you’ve lost a pet, you may relate to how it hurts to think about their death. The last day with them can invoke incredibly sad feelings and even set off that lump in your throat and tears in your eyes years later. But death is inevitable. Humans live longer than their companion animals, so if you have a dog or cat, you will have to one day experience their death. And then what?
How do you walk in the kitchen and see the spot where their bowl was or climb into bed without them beside you? For some people, getting another pet is the answer; for others, they can’t even think about that. Just like grieving the death of a human loved one, there are no rules, no linear paths to follow, and no way to predict your feelings.
But one of the most important things to do is to acknowledge those feelings. Know that it’s okay to feel sad, angry, defeated, and even relieved if your pet had been suffering for a while. An article from Psychology Today shares that, “In its simplest form, grief is the open admission that we have lost something very important to our life and well-being. A common synonym of grief is heartache. It feels as though we have pain in our physical hearts.”
So what can you do? How do you heal your broken heart? The thing is, grief is different for everyone, but the key is to be active about it. Talk about it, cry about it, and feel it. And even if this talking is just to yourself, that’s okay. Some people share that they set aside time each day to talk about their loss, whether that’s with someone else or to themselves. They recognize feelings, allow those feelings, and then honor them. This invites you to move forward. Other ways of dealing with the grief of a pet are:
• Reaching out to grief support groups, like Pet Compassion Careline or Laps of Love. You can find specific groups for pet loss that are led by trained pet grief counselors, and you’ll connect with others who share the same emotions.
• Talking to a therapist. Whether or not you find a specific grief or pet counselor, talking through your experience and feelings can be hugely beneficial.
• Focusing on the happy memories with your pet rather than the last day or days with them. It’s heartbreaking to experience their death, so focus on the great life they shared with you.
• Memorializing your pet with an art or jewelry piece, a special pillow, or anything that provides you comfort.
• Trying to understand that your pet is no longer suffering and that you gave them a beautiful life.
• Being kind to yourself and taking time for yourself.
When is it time for another pet?
This is different for everyone. Some people will choose not to get another dog or cat, while others will get one right away. Some people begin to foster or volunteer in an animal shelter. Often, it happens organically; you know the time is right and you know it’s the right new pet.
Also, it’s important to think about the other people in your household and have family conversations. Do you have other pets? Consider them and how a new pet will affect the dynamic. Know that you are not “replacing” your previous pet; instead, you are opening your home to another animal, perhaps one who is in need. When you adopt a pet from a shelter or rescue organization, you are giving the new dog or cat a home, life, and family.
No matter what, you’ll always have your memories and experiences with your previous pet, and they will always have the honor of that special place in your heart.