Even if our cats live into their late teens and sometimes early twenties, it’s just not long enough. The price we pay for sharing our lives with these wonderful companions is that all of us who considers our cats family members or best friends will sooner or later experience the pain of loss, and it can be as devastating as the loss of any loved one. Joelle Nielsen, a veterinary social worker at the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, says she often compares the loss of a pet to the loss of a child or a close family member. Nielsen says the big difference between losing a pet, compared to losing a human, is that “much of society is not aware of the strength of the human-animal bond, so pet loss is often seen as ‘disenfranchised loss,’ meaning it is not socially recognized.”
Another significant difference is the matter of euthanasia. Deciding to end a pet’s pain and suffering is one of the most difficult choices pet owners ever have to make, and it can engender massive feelings of guilt and regret after the fact.
While there are some commonalities, grieving the loss of a pet is a unique experience for each individual. Factors that play into how the loss is handled include whether the death was sudden or followed a prolonged illness, whether the pet guardian had to elect euthanasia, whether it was the first time the person experienced losing a pet, and the person’s living situation. Single pet guardians for whom the pet was a primary source of emotional support tend to have more difficulty recovering. Regardless of how the loss occurred, there are some things that can help you cope.
Acknowledge that losing a pet is a very difficult experience
Don’t let anyone tell you that “you should just get over it,” or “it was just a pet.” Marty Tousley, a bereavement counselor at Hospice of the Valley in Phoenix, AZ, says that “for some, the insensitivity of others can be more painful than the grief from the actual loss. Most people don’t tell someone to go get a new spouse or child within a month of one dying.”
Mark the pet’s passing with some sort of ritual
Rituals such as memorial services and burial ceremonies are an accepted part of human loss, and can be equally helpful after losing a pet. Even something as simple as lighting a candle in your pet’s memory each night can help.
Find supportive family and friends
Not everyone in your life will be able to handle your grief. It is important to find people who are comfortable letting you cry, listening while you talk about your pet, or just sitting quietly with you. Many people don’t know what to do or say when faced with someone who is grieving. This can make you feel even more isolated.
Find a pet loss hotline or support group
If you can’t get enough support from family or friends, find a pet loss hotline or support group. Many veterinary schools offer free pet loss hotlines staffed with trained volunteers who will listen and offer compassionate support. Pet loss support groups can be found through pet cemeteries or crematories, shelters, and veterinary hospitals. “Pet loss groups are not the same as group therapy,” says Tousley. “Their purpose is to offer a safe, structured place where people bound by the experience of loss can come together.” Numerous online support groups are available 24 hours a day. Both Nielsen and Tousley recommend that pet owners who feel unable to function normally or who feel that they are not progressing in their grief process seek professional help.
Allow yourself time to grieve
While it’s not healthy to get stuck in your grief, pretending that nothing is wrong is equally unhealthy. “A person’s grief is legitimate and real, regardless of anyone else’s comments, behavior or opinions,” says Tousley. Nielsen adds “You are not ‘crazy’ – what you are experiencing is normal.”
The old adage that time heals all wounds applies to pet loss as well – if you do the necessary emotional work to deal with your grief. Unfortunately, there is no other way through grief except to allow yourself to feel it. But with time, you will find that there will come a day when you’ll wake up in the morning and your first thought will not be about how much you miss your cat, but about a happy memory of the time you spent together.
Euthanasia: how to know when it’s time
The final farewell: options after your pet dies