For many, pets become part of the fabric of their families and an integral element of their every day lives. From first thing in the morning until the household goes to bed, pets are a constant source of fun, companionship and love.
For those who live on their own and in particular the elderly, pets take on the role of confidant and provide a focus and structure for their days. The loss of pets in these circumstances can be devastating, as it can be for children who have often not known life without their pet.
So, despite the inevitability of death, the loss of a pet can trigger deep and powerful emotions.
Not everyone understands, though. Those who do not have pets, or do not have the same connection, can sometimes underplay the depth of emotions. But your feelings are your own and you should never feel ashamed or embarrassed of them.
The feelings that accompany the death of a pet are just as real as those we feel when a loved one dies, and take time to heal. It is worth remembering that there are five stages of grief – as originally laid out by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book ‘On Death and Dying’ – and understanding those can sometimes make grieving easier to process:
Denial: a feeling of numbness after a bereavement is common, with some carrying on as if nothing has happened. Even if there is acknowledgement that a death has occurred, it can be hard to accept. This stage can sometimes be accompanied with a feeling that the pet which died is still present.
Anger: death can seem unfair, particularly if a pet has died ‘before its time’ through, for example, disease or accident. Sometimes this anger can be expressed as feelings towards the pet for leaving others behind. This is a relatively common feeling for those that are very closely bonded to their pet, for example those with working dogs or the elderly. Sometimes owners can feel anger towards a vet who they feel has not done all they could even if euthanasia, for example, was the agreed course of action.
Bargaining: feeling helpless at a death can sometimes lead us to make deals with ourselves or, if you’re religious, God. We want to feel as if we’re doing something so we act in ways that help us feel better. It is not uncommon for those experiencing this part of the process to ask lots of ‘what if’ questions, wishing they could go back and make different decisions.
Depression: these feelings of sadness and longing can be very intense and last for months or even years. For some, life can lose meaning – a particularly scary thought.
Acceptance: although the emotions can feel like they’re never going to go away, for most people they do over time and that is when they reach acceptance. While people may not ‘get over’ losing a pet, they can accept that it has happened and live life to the full again.
It is worth knowing that the process is not linear; people do not move smoothly from one stage to the next. Some might move quickly to depression before reverting back to anger, for example. Everyone’s path through grief is different.
As we have already seen, everyone grieves differently but there are some things that may be helpful to think about as you go through your bereavement:
They are your emotions: the death of a pet can bring out some peculiar reactions among others. Some may feel that you are over-reacting, that it’s ‘just a pet’ and that you should get on with your life. Do not let others tell you how to feel; they are your emotions and you should not feel embarrassed about them.
Maintain some degree of normality: after morning dog walks for years, it can be hard to stop overnight. If it helps, keep going for those walks trying to focus on the happy memories you created. If you have other pets, it’s important to maintain a normal routine so you can help them with their grief.
Saying ‘goodbye’: while not appropriate for everyone, some might find holding a funeral or memorial for their pet helps them express their feelings and may help with the grieving process.
Create a memento: it is not just children who want to remember their pets; adults can benefit too. Scattering ashes in a favourite place, planting a tree or putting together a photobook can help celebrate the life of your pet and focus on the happy times.
Find your tribe: speaking to others who have lost pets may help you deal with your emotions. Ask friends you know who have lost a pet, or connect with a local pet loss group so you can talk to people that understand how you are feeling.
Find professional help: if you think you need it, seek professional help through counselling. Do not worry about any stigma; you need to do what’s right for you to overcome your grief.