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Saying Goodbye to Your Pet

Accepting the death of a pet is never easy. Here are suggestions for working through this difficult time as a pet owner.

I've lost other animals in my life, but no loss was more devastating than the death of my first dog, a golden retriever named Katie, more than three years ago. My husband and I opted not to have children, and in a way, Katie filled that void. I trained her to be a therapy dog, and for seven years, Katie and I worked as a team, volunteering at the library, an Alzheimer's unit, a rehabilitation hospital, and a hospice home.

After she passed, the grief I felt cut deep. For weeks, I functioned in a daze, my eyes red and swollen from crying. I avoided friends, especially those who had never understood my connection with animals. I even shut out our other golden, whom we had adopted a few months before.

As it turns out, I was not alone. Many people have trouble admitting that they're grieving a pet. They're often embarrassed or ashamed, especially when outsiders comment that it's only a pet or that they can get another dog or cat. "There's a stigma in society about losing a companion animal. It's more accepted to mourn the loss of a person than a pet," says Diane Pomerance, author and grief-recovery specialist. She asks people to remind themselves that they are in fact "mourning the loss of a family member."

Getting through this difficult period starts by giving yourself permission to grieve. "Designate time every day to do this," says Claire Chew Gillenson, a life-transition coach and petloss educator. Keep a journal. Talk to a counselor or friend who understands your loss.

If you had to put your animal to sleep, try not to fixate on your pet's last moments. "If guilt surfaces, forgive yourself and remember that you did everything you could," Gillenson says. Try to remember the good times: long games of fetch or evenings cozied up on the sofa.

If you have kids, especially if this is their first experience with death, talk openly with them. "Children are generally curious and want to know what's happening," says Mac Hafen, a clinical marriage and family therapist at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Kansas State, adding that it's best to use terms such as death and dying rather than going to sleep, which could make children scared of going to bed at night. If they're not asking questions, find out how they're feeling. Try engaging them in play or artwork.

Taking time to honor your pet will also bring comfort and peace to you and your family. After Katie died, I sent a note to friends and family announcing her death and sharing stories from her therapy work. One of the hospitals where we volunteered held a memorial service for her, and I spent weeks creating a scrapbook of Katie's life. All of these activities helped me say goodbye, but there are many ways -- such as planting a tree, donating money, or holding a remembrance party -- to memorialize your pet. The key is doing what feels right for you.

Honoring Your Pet

These products can help you as you begin to grieve and to celebrate your pet's life.

Comfort in Words

Animal lovers big and small will find solace in the Cat Heaven and Dog Heaven books (Scholastic, $17 each) by Cynthia Rylant.

Near to Your Heart

Wear your pet's silhouette on this customizable charm necklace (from $170, silhoupette.com).

Lasting Impression

Capturing your pet's paw print is simple with the Sculpey Keepsake No-Mess Clay and Frame ($25, amazon.com).

Comments (11)

  • 12 Jul, 2014

    It seems to me a dog's life is so short because they give so much.
    All they have and all they are. Vaya con Dios Boomer

  • 26 May, 2014

    This is the most difficult part.
    Sacramento Bankruptcy Attorney

  • 20 Jan, 2014

    5 days ago, my pet parakeet passed away. It's been really difficult for me and I miss her so much. To everyone who is dealing with the loss of a pet, I can't say I know how you feel, but I understand. My heart goes out to you! <3 R.I.P. Morning Glory

  • 11 Mar, 2013

    My Jack Russell, Luc, stopped eating suddenly last fall. I took him to a vet to treat a stomach problem and get him for some IV fluids. I got a call later telling me they found a rapidly spreading cancer throughout his body. They said we could take him home for one last night and bring him in the morning to be put down.

    I have put six dogs down from old age - this has been totally different. I mourn him every day. But time heals, and the love remains. Look for him everywhere - he will be near

  • 7 Mar, 2013

    Yesterday, I had to have my Jack Russell terrier, SugarBear, put to sleep. He was so weak from not eating and getting sick to his stomach. He was my everything for 14 yrs. and 10 mos. He ran the household and was never out of my sight and mostly in my arms. I cannot get him out of my mind and tears cannot stop. I still look for him. My home is cold and barren without him. How can I deal with this horrible pain? Nothing seems to make it go away.

  • 6 Mar, 2013

    This article really hits close to home for a lot of us animal lovers. They only downside of a pet is having to say goodbye. Though I've always painted, bfa in illustration, I didn't start painting full time until I found the calling to memorialize pets, both alive and those who have passed on. I started Pet Portraits by Bethany (petportraitsbybethany.com) with inspiration from my dachshunds. I've painted over 150 people's pets since 2012, but the most special are always when someone's pet passed

  • 6 Mar, 2013

    Mr. Finnegan--my heart is right there with you, much you have had to bear in a short period of time. The only consolation is that they are all still with you in your memories and your heart. Yes everyone this is difficult and those of us who love deeply, grieve deeply. I recently lost my little 18 yr old /tortie Birdie, I prepared for her loss but it hit me especially hard, our love was deep and very strong! Sharon--thanks for the website..

  • 6 Mar, 2013

    Thank you for this post. This past August I lost my 20yr old BearBear. He got very sick and there was nothing more the vet could do for him so I had to say good bye. The hardest thing was to let him go. He was my best friend and it has been hard without him here. And yes I have found that a lot of people do not understand the loss. I am sorry for the loss of everyone else's pets too.

  • 6 Mar, 2013

    I am facing the most devastating decision to put our cat Irok down. In the past year he had UTI which was taken care of, but now he faces more problems that may be either cancer in his privates or cystitis. I lost my job two weeks ago and he was fine, the next day he started to act weird and then I noticed what was wrong. He is the coolest cat I've ever had; very laid back, whenever my Avon boxes would arrive he would want to play with the plastic ties, not very demanding at all! I am just sad!

  • 4 Oct, 2012

    This year alone I have lost a majority of my pets albeit through old age. Two beloved Jack Russell Terriers, Tug and Bollinger, my dear chicken Onion, my rescue cat, Taittinger.......All accept Onion were aged from 15 through to 20+. Although devastated I know I gave all these and my existing animals the love and respect deserved which made their passing so much easier...... Just wanted to say that I read this piece and it made me cry...... but made me feel better about my decisions.....

  • 26 Aug, 2012

    Thanks so much for the article on this subject. Losing a companion animal is losing a family member -- and it's important that people know it's OK to grieve the loss. It's also important to help family and friends better understand the depth of the grief one is experiencing. When I lost my beagle Pushkin, I used letter-writing as a way of healing. I found it so helpful that I created a free web site, Letters To Pushkin, that gives others the opportunity to do the same. http:/letterstopushkin.com