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