Pet loss and bereavement

Pets are an important part of the family and share a very special bond with us. Naturally the death of a beloved pet elicits very strong emotions.  Companion animals bring such joy and comfort to our lives that often they are looked upon like a child or very special friend within the family. The strength of the attachment to your pet can equal or exceed the caring feelings you may have for another person.  It is not unnatural or abnormal to have these strong feelings for your pet.  It is important that you recognize these feelings and understand why the death of a pet can be so difficult for you or other members of the family (who may have had an even stronger bond with your pet than you did).  The objective of this packet of information is to help provide you with tools to assist you in your grieving process and support you during this very difficult time.

Understanding Grief

Grieving is a necessary, unavoidable, and healthy response to the loss of a treasured family pet.  It is important to understand that each of us experiences grief in a different way.  Since grief often involves very painful and difficult feelings, many people think that their grief is “wrong” or “crazy” when it involves their pet.  This idea may be reinforced by trivializing comments from others such as:  “It’s only a dog”, “He had a good life”, or “You still have other pets”.  In actuality, grief is a very healthy psychological response requiring expression and acknowledgement.  Attempts to suppress feelings of grief can actually prolong the healing process. The grieving process takes time, and several factors can complicate the process.  Grief is a process, not an event.  No specific time frame exists for this process.  Healthy grief, however, gradually lessens in intensity with time.

Many people do not understand the overwhelming feelings of grief prompted by the death of a pet.  During the grieving process, you or other family members may experience feelings of sadness, anger, guilt, anxiety, loneliness, helplessness, shock, or depression.  Physical sensations may include crying, hollowness in the stomach, tightness in the chest and throat, weak muscles, a dry mouth, appetite and sleep disturbances, and fatigue.  Following the death of a companion animal, it is common to be preoccupied with memories and thoughts of your pet and to even imagine that he or she is still alive.  All of these reactions are normal and healthy parts of the grief process.  Some of us may experience many of these feelings; others experience very few.  The important thing to remember is there is no right or wrong way to grieve – only your way. 

Finding Support

As a part of the grieving process, you may feel the need to share your grief and your feelings with others.  When the loss involves your companion animal, it is sometimes difficult to get the support you need.  Family and friends might take the time to listen, but occasionally, they may not be able to understand the significant role your pet had in your life or the extent of your grief.  At times when the support of reading materials, videotapes, and the help of family and friends is not enough, professional assistance may be beneficial.  There are many professional counselors, therapists, and members of the clergy trained in the areas of loss and grief, they can provide assistance through the grieving process. 

Growth from Grief: Recovery from the Death of a Pet

Everyone experiences the death of a companion animal in unique ways.  This model is a guide; some people progress through grief in this order and others move back and forth from phase to phase.  Recognizing these phases can help one understand the grieving process.

1.  Initial awareness of loss phase
This early phase of the grief process is also called anticipatory grief.  This is the phase in which most diagnoses are made and in which animals with acute illnesses and injuries are presented for treatment.  Owners realize the circumstances hold the potential for the loss of their pet.

2.  Coping with loss phase
Owners make difficult decisions concerning euthanasia such as being present at euthanasia and cremation options.

3.  Saying good-bye phase
In this phase burials take place as well as memorial ceremonies.  Pet owners often get stuck in this phase of grief.  Many believe that once they say good-bye, they will “forget” their pets and lose the special feelings they had for them.  

4.  Painful awareness of loss phase
This is the time that reality sets in and pet owners accept the fact that their pet is dead.  It is here that pet owners experience the full extent of grief – depression, loneliness, guilt, and self-neglect.  

5.  Recovering from loss phase
Owners can usually talk about their pet without intense emotion and sadness.  They remember the good times and the special characteristics that make their pet unique.  Some owners will become interested in having a new pet in their lives.

6.  Personal growth through grief phase
Pet owners often feel they have grown emotionally and measure their personal development in terms of recovery from loss.  Pet owners are also able to have a new pet in their lives without feeling disloyal to the one that died.

Factors That Can Complicate Grief

  • No previous experience with loss, death, or grief
  • Other recent losses or a personal history involving multiple losses
  • Little or no support from friends or family members
  • Societal norms that trivialize and negate the loss
  • Generally poor personal coping skills
  • Feelings of guilt or responsibility for a death
  • Untimely deaths like those of a young pet
  • Deaths that occur suddenly, without warning
  • Deaths that occur after lengthy, lingering illnesses
  • Deaths that have no known cause or that could have been prevented
  • An unexplained disappearance
  • Not being present at the time of death
  • Not viewing the body after death
  • Witnessing a painful or traumatic death
  • Deaths that occur in conjunction with other significant life events (birthdays, holidays, etc.)
  • After-death anniversary dates and holidays
  • Stories in the media that misrepresent or cast doubt on medical treatment procedures
  • Advice based on others’ experiences with death or on inaccurate information about normal grief
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