It’s not just human losses that feel monumental and overwhelming. The loss of a pet is often earth-shattering, too. However, those mourning non-human loved ones aren’t always validated in their grief.
Our pets are just as worthy of our pain and mourning as the humans in our lives. In fact, in many cases, losing our dog or cat (or horse, rabbit, snake, etc!) means losing the deepest relationship we have.
Trying to ignore this grief dishonors your relationship with your pet, and makes the healing process take longer. So read on for confirmation on why this grieving a pet’s loss is so important, and tips for how to start healing.
You shouldn’t have to explain your grief over the loss of a pet
In an article for Scientific American, renowned emotional wellbeing expert and psychologist Guy Winch sums up why our society has to take pet loss more seriously:
“Losing a beloved pet is often an emotionally devastating experience. Yet as a society, we do not recognize how painful pet loss can be and how much it can impair our emotional and physical health. Symptoms of acute grief after the loss of a pet can last from one to two months, with symptoms of grief persisting up to a full year (on average).”
“Although grief over the loss of a cherished pet may be as intense and even as lengthy as when a significant person in our life dies, our process of mourning is quite different. Many of the societal mechanisms of social and community support are absent when a pet dies.”
Losing a pet during the pandemic is proving to be an even more anxiety-inducing experience. In lockdown, we are relying on our pets more than ever — they replace the human connection we’re missing, and they show us some of the purest love we may ever know.
Pets keep us accountable
In addition to what we get from our relationships with our pets, we have to remember that their loss can also mean losing a regulating force in our lives.
Pets help us regulate both our emotions and our routines, providing a key support in lessening anxiety and depression. They keep us exercising with walks, they force us to put away leftover food and pick up the trash, and they make us feel needed and important. With a pet relying on us, we have a reason to live, no matter how difficult we find life to be.
They give us strength to get out of bed on the bad days, and now with them gone, we may feel doubly demotivated to keep chugging along.
Pets are our biggest supporters
A huge reason we may fear loss of a pet, is that our pets are there for us when it seems nobody else is–these can be our most reliable relationships!
Our family and friends have their own lives, their own issues; but our dogs and cats are available to us 24/7. Rather than ever feeling like a burden to our pets, we feel needed and wanted by them–and we’re able to feel very secure in that, because they are also reliant on us.
So what happens when we lose a pet and lose the relationship we may be most secure in (and trust most)?
How can we cope with the loss of a pet?
1. Accept difficult feelings as normal and expected.
This was a big loss. No matter how deep and unique your grief is, it can help just to know you’re justified in feeling how you do.
Before trying to heal, make sure you’ve accepted the grief you’re feeling–it’s all a part of the process, and you’re not weak or overly sentimental in your pain. Below, find some firsthand accounts of the strong emotions folks tend to go through after pet loss…
“It was tragic losing my emotional support animal during COVID-19. I am left with a 10K vet bill and a broken heart. Carly helped me through panic attacks. Since her passing, there are some days I can barely get out of bed. They say time heals all wounds. I hope that is true for me losing my best friend.” (via)
“I knew it would be rough when she died, but I had no idea… I was a total wreck. I cried for days. I couldn’t get any work done. And worst of all, I was too embarrassed about it to tell anyone. I spent days at work crying in private and muttering ‘allergies’ whenever someone glanced at my puffy eyes.” (via)
“I got laid off because of quarantine but my husband is an essential worker. I’m home alone and just seeing my cat’s favorite spots all over the house. It’s bringing me so much sadness and pain. I know he got to live such a long life, but he’s been there through me growing up, becoming an adult, college, marriage, everything. I can’t wrap my brain around him not being with me for more life experiences.” (via)
“Sometimes it feels like I’ll wake up and he’ll be there again, it’s all a bad dream and he’s fine. But I know that won’t happen. I just really miss him more than anything and life feels wrong without him.” (via)
2. Share your grief. Let it out.
The most important part of the healing process is to share our grief. Letting the intense feelings out of our heads, into a safe conversation, allows us to process it better. It also helps us remember we’re not alone, even though we lost our best friend.
It’s almost impossible to heal from this type of monumental loss, without a social safety net. That can be friends, family, or even strangers who understand the depth of love we can have for pets.
When we feel shame about our reactions to pet loss, we deprive ourselves of the necessary social support to help us both recover and feel less alone.
If you’re afraid of being judged for your emotions, remind yourself that even experts acknowledge pet loss can be just as difficult as (or more than) the loss of a human loved one. Don’t let yourself be gaslighted into believing you’re overreacting.
3. Focus on rebuilding your identity without your beloved companion.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, pets often become a large part of our self-identity. Their positivity reflects back on us, increasing our self esteem, and others may even come to view us in relation to our pets.
Special effort should be made to reflect on how your identity will fundamentally change after the loss of a pet. Some tips on clarifying your own identity can be found here.
4. Take time to memorialize your pet in a way that will bring you joy.
Feeling the sadness and pain is a crucial part of healing and grieving your pet. However, as you come through the grieving process, you want to work toward remembering your pet as they were in life, rather than after their death.
Try to shift your thoughts from: “I’ll never see his fluffy paws again,” to “He had the biggest, fluffiest paws. They always made me so happy.” Try to remember and hold on to the feeling of being with your pet, and all the joy they brought to your life when they were here.
You can encourage yourself to think of the good times by creating a photo board with all your good memories. Or even get creative and put a reminder of your pet (like their old food bowl) in a place that would have made them happy–that way you think of how happy they would’ve been, every time you see it.