How to Cope with the Loss Of a Pet
"This was a relationship that mattered."
Besides being our playmates, our pets are constant sources of comfort and unconditional love, studies have shown that companion animals can ease depression and lower blood pressure. For people who love animals, there are few downsides to being a pet parent.
The big one, which we don't confront daily, is perhaps the worst part of pet ownership: the knowledge that the day will come when your pet will no longer be with you. Death is part of life, and even though we are aware of that when we welcome animals into our family, it's of little comfort when the day comes. Pets are our family, and the pain we feel when they pass away is real. Here are some things to remember when you're dealing with the death of a pet.
Take Care of - and Be Patient With - Yourself
"Sometimes people are surprised at how bad they feel after a pet's death, and they compound the negative feelings by telling themselves that they ‘shouldn't feel this way,'" says Jennifer Breslow, a therapist in private practice in New York who specializes in pet-loss counseling. "Acknowledge that your feelings are valid and that this is the first step toward moving through them." Self-care is critical at this time; eating and sleeping well, and exercising can help. "You can't speed up the grieving process, but you can make sure you are taking care of yourself so that are better equipped to handle uncomfortable feelings," she says.
It's OK if it's Hard
Friends and family may mean well when they say things like, "It's just a cat" or "You can always get another one," but not everyone understands the big place in our hearts and lives pets occupy. "Acknowledge for yourself that this is a significant bond, and it's all right to really struggle with your loss," Breslow says. Look to the other animal lovers in your life who may have a better understanding of what you're going through. And if your dog's bowl or your cat's empty bed is too upsetting, consider storing them - just for awhile, Breslow says. "If it's kicking up your pain to see these items and photos, put them away until you are further along in your grieving process."
But Reach Out For Help if You Need it
We spend more time with our pets than some of our human family and friends. "You are probably seeing your pet a lot more often than your grandmother!" Breslow says. "Connect with other animal lovers you know so that you can be around people who ‘get it' and won't diminish your experience." You can find support at veterinary practices that host bereavement groups or in online support forums. While you can't - and shouldn't - put a time limit on grief, if you're finding it hard to function or having suicidal thoughts, seek the help of a therapist.
Make it a Teachable Moment For Your Kids
A pet's passing is an opportunity to help children understand that death is part of life. Use age-appropriate language to be honest with kids about what has happened - enlisting your vet can be helpful here, Breslow says. And share your own grief. "You can model for your child that it's OK to feel sad and angry when a relationship is lost, and that those feelings are temporary," Breslow says. In the same way that self-care will benefit you in a time of loss, maintaining kids' routines will help them; consider telling your child's teacher what's going on at home. "Most importantly, allow space for your child's feelings, and name the feelings they may be having, letting them know that whatever they are feeling - even if it's nothing - is OK," she says.
Express Yourself, and Honor Your Pet
"Create something!" Breslow says. Channeling your pain into creativity can help you feel better, and honor your four-legged family member. "You can do this in any way that works for you," says Breslow. "Write a letter to your pet about what they meant to you and include some of your favorite memories. Or make some art. ... Creating something tangible can also offer some distance from your feelings and put you in touch with the part of yourself that is strong and resilient." When you're ready, consider how to memorialize your pet in a personal way. "It might be creating a corner in your home to keep photos or special items that remind you or your pet."
Take Your Time Before Bringing Another Animal into Your Family
There's no right or wrong time to get another pet. Everyone grieves in their own way, so trust your gut to tell you when - or if - you're ready. Your dog or cat was unique - a new pet will be different, not a substitute. "Allow time to grieve and honor the pet you lost and not bring a new pet home as a way to ease your pain or to try and replace the one you lost," Breslow says.
Look Upon Your Time With Your Pet as a Privilege
Opening your home and your heart to an animal isn't for everyone, but you are one of the fortunate who were able to. "As much as we are in pain during the grieving process, I think most people would agree that they are willing to endure it if it means they got to have the relationship that they did with their pet," Breslow says. "Not everyone knows what it is like to share a bond with an animal, and those of us who do are so lucky. Our grief signals that this was a relationship that mattered. Be grateful you had this animal in your life, and trust that the grief will end."