For those of us who share our lives with animals, it’s inevitable that at some point, we will be dealing with losing these beloved friends. Over the last ten years, I’ve lost three cats, and I’ve helped many clients through pet loss during the years I worked in veterinary clinics. As a result, I’m often asked how to cope with losing a pet.
Different things work for different people. Each situation is unique. Was the death sudden? Did it come after a prolonged illness? Was it the first time the person experienced losing a pet? I share my own experience of dealing with pet loss and grief in Buckley’s Story – Lessons from a Feline Master Teacher, and maybe my readers will find some commonalities with what I went through. Even though no two people will deal with pet loss in exactly the same way, I’ve found some common things that can help ease the pain at least a little. I’ll also share some resources at the end of this article that have helped me when I’ve had to deal with grief and loss.
Acknowledge that losing a pet is a very difficult experience. Many people, especially people who don’t have pets, don’t realize that losing a pet can often be far more difficult than losing a person. Many of us view our pets as children, especially if we don’t have children of our own. For most pet owners, losing a pet is very much like losing a child. Don’t let anyone tell you that you should “get over it,” “it was only an animal,” or, even worse, “you can always get another one.” Expect to feel the same emotions you would feel after a person close to you dies. In Elizabeth Kuebler Ross’ model, the five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and eventually acceptance. Expect that some of these stages may be magnified after losing a pet.
Mark the pet’s passing with some sort of ritual. It’s important to acknowledge that your pet is gone. A ritual can be something as elaborate as a memorial service and burial ceremony, or something as simple as lighting a candle in your pet’s memory each night for a little while.
Find supportive family and friends. Not everyone in your life will be able to handle your grief. It’s important that you find people who are comfortable with being supportive, can handle letting you cry, listen while you talk about your pet, or who can just quietly sit with you. Many people don’t know what to do or say when faced with someone who is grieving, so, afraid of saying the wrong thing, they don’t say anything at all. This can make you feel even more isolated during a difficult time. Try not to judge people for their inability to handle your grief, and spend more time with those who can.
Allow yourself time to grieve. There is no way around grief – the only way to deal with grief is to move through it. If you try to ignore it, it will catch up with you when you least expect it. You may need to spend an afternoon or an evening crying. You may not want to distract yourself all the time. While it’s not healthy to get stuck in your grief, pretending that nothing is wrong is equally unhealthy. Try and find a balance.
Find things that comfort you. Whether it’s a walk, music, a favorite book, looking at photos of your pet, or a perfect cup of tea, find small things that provide comfort for you.
Getting over the loss of a pet takes time, and it takes being gentle with yourself. If you find that you simply can’t cope, and that even supportive family members or friends aren’t enough to help you get through this difficult time, consider getting professional help. And know that even though it seems hard to believe when you’re in the middle of grieving the loss of an animal friend, there is truth to the old adage that time heals all wounds. It does get a little bit easier as time goes on, and one day, upon waking up in the morning, instead of your first thought being about your pet being gone, you’ll find yourself remembering something wonderful about your departed friend.
• http://www.veterinarywisdom.com/ is a wonderful site for anyone looking for information on pet loss. The understand that it’s hard to face the future when you know it won’t include your beloved animal companion, and they offer a plethora of resources to prepare for and cope with pet loss, as well as to celebrate and cherish the pets we love.
• http://www.petloss.com/ provides information on how to cope with pet loss, a bulletin board to exchange messages and gain support from others grieving the loss of a pet, healing and inspirational poetry, and links to other internet pet loss sites.
• Books: For Every Cat an Angel and For Every Dog an Angel by Christine Davis. These little books are wonderfully illustrated and celebrate the connection between a human and his or her forever cat or dog.
• Music: Some people find music plays an important part in the healing process. One particular cd that I have found very helpful anytime I’ve dealt with loss, whether it was an animal or a person, is Beth Nielsen Chapman’s cd Sand and Water. The singer/songwriter wrote the songs on this album after the loss of her husband to cancer. The songs on the album reflect the many stages of grieving and healing, and are just as applicable to pet loss as they are to human loss.
• Private Pet Loss Consultation: I offer phone consultations to help you navigate through your grief. Sometimes, talking to someone who has experienced this devastating loss can make a difference. For more information on consultations, click here.