Losing a pet can be as devastating as losing a family member — just ask anyone who’s ever had to say good-bye to his or her best animal friend.
I know this loss all too well. When our family beagle was hit by a car when I was in elementary school, I was stunned. I didn’t know how to process what happened. So I shoved all my emotions down, went to school and moved on with my day. Now I’m the owner of two aging Chihuahuas that probably only have a few good years left. I’ve always known the obvious, that animals don’t live as long as people, but I know I’m not even close to ready to say good-bye.
Even worse is the fact that pet loss is something we don’t really talk about. Since animals aren’t technically people (though many pet lovers would disagree), we’re expected to post a sad Facebook status and move on. If you’re still grieving over your pet years later, most people will give you the side-eye — Can’t you just get another dog and get on with your life?
Like human loss, pet loss doesn’t work that way. It occurs in different stages, similar to the ever-popular “five stages of grief” model created by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. This grief may take some people much longer to process than others. June Greig, pet loss bereavement counselor certified by the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement, says, “Typical stages of bereavement after pet loss are shock and disbelief; anger, alienation and distancing; denial; guilt; depression; and resolution. Although not sequential, shock and disbelief are almost always the first ones. The stages are experienced by people who are intensely bonded with their pet. These stages were developed in 1990 by Dr. Wallace Sife, founder of the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement.”
Pet loss can be devastating, and it takes time to deal with. Here’s how to support yourself as you move through the stages of grief.
This first stage is inevitable, and it’s going to happen as you and your family are reeling after the loss of a beloved pet. During this time, be kind to yourself while you let the shock sink in — just as you would with any other loss in your life. Know that it can take a few days or weeks to comprehend what really happened before another stronger emotion starts to take over.
Hannah Grant of Captura Photography describes what it was like to lose her female dachshund Haba after only three years. “After she died, there was this silence in the house. It lasted for a couple of days. No one’s talking about it. She was not a pet; she’s a part of the family. So when we she died, we lost a family member.”
Loss sets in and you can’t believe this really happened to you. You may be angry at the unfairness of it all, or you may be mad at how it happened — the car that came out of nowhere, the disease that took your dog’s life in a few short months. “The anger may be turned inward: You might berate yourself for not taking better care of Snowball, for not bringing her in to the vet’s to be checked sooner or for any other imagined failing that you now suppose resulted in her death,” writes Cynthia MacGregor in her book Lost Your Best Friend.
MacGregor advises, “It’s natural to feel anger, whether directed at God, yourself or someone else, but be careful about venting that anger; remember that while what you’re feeling is normal, it’s also not grounded in reality. Don’t needlessly hurt someone.”
Denial may come in the form of thinking that you’re totally fine or even by putting a Band-Aid on the wound with a new pet. It’s normal to move forward and consider a new pet after loss, especially as an animal lover, but Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D. (aka “Dr. Romance”), psychotherapist and author of It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction, cautions against the thinking that a new pet will fix the hole in your heart.
“When you lose a beloved pet, you may experience intense grief for weeks or months after the loss. Wait until you feel it’s right before getting another pet, to give everyone a chance to feel that the lost pet has been honored,” says Dr. Tessina.
Anger at yourself over a pet’s death may look and feel like guilt, but guilt is a separate stage in itself, perhaps because it’s so easy to wallow in. Your mind may be filled with regret and “what ifs” night after night as you lie awake and wonder what you could have done differently to change the outcome of this loss.
The most effective antidote to guilt is the most obvious — don’t blame yourself. Talk over some of your deepest regrets and hidden thoughts with someone you trust to get a balanced perspective. And use this time to move forward with a therapeutic grief activity to get away from that self-critical loop in your head. Instead of wallowing, Roxanne Hawn, author of Heart Dog: Surviving the Loss of Your Canine Soul Mate, suggests “balancing the tasks of archiving your pet’s life with other memorial activities such as making a tribute video, setting up a memorial shrine (of sorts) and hosting a charity fundraiser in your pet’s memory.”
Depression may be the most difficult stage of all since it can feel like you’re never going to climb out of the hole you’ve been living in the past few months. Rev. Terri Daniel, a hospice chaplain and grief counselor who specializes in animal loss, says that this painful stage is the perfect time to truly open up and process the death of your pet.
Rev. Daniel encourages, “After the death of a loved one, many of us shut down emotionally, but true healing comes from walking bravely through the fire of that pain. You must be willing to go to that place of extreme vulnerability, because that’s where you can most clearly sense the presence of your beloved animal friends. Keeping that conduit open is the foundation of the healing process. Allow the trauma and the pain to become part of who you are becoming by integrating it into your life, your personality and your spiritual perspective.”
Here’s the good news: As cliché as it sounds, when you honor your loss and let yourself really feel your feelings, you will come to the end of your bereavement journey. No longer grieving doesn’t mean you no longer love your pet — it just means that you allowed yourself to grow and heal, proving that something beautiful can come out of loss. Dr. Tessina says, “Any time we love, whether it’s a life partner, a dear friend, a child, a sibling, a parent or a beloved pet, we are risking the loss of that love, and a broken heart. The promise of happiness is strong enough that the risk is worth it.”
Reaching this resolution stage may not be fast or easy, says Hawn. Hawn surveyed 474 pet owners who had experienced loss when writing her book, and she found that it took 21 percent of people six months or longer to feel “normal” again. For 20 percent of people, it took more than a year. Give yourself time.