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How to Grieve the Death of a Pet and Find Peace After Your Loss

When her dog died, Ms. Meyers got stuck in grief. She needed to talk about her loss and honor her pet's life in order to find peace again.

Talk about your loss with fellow animal lovers. Don't expect those who aren't to understand your sorrow.

Talk about your loss with fellow animal lovers. Don't expect those who aren't to understand your sorrow.

Don't Suffer Silently When Your Pet Dies

  • Are you struggling with the loss of a pet?
  • Are you wondering why this death is hitting you harder than that of some relatives?
  • Are you wanting to find peace in your time of sorrow and move forward?

If nodding your head in agreement, know that you're not alone. Many of us suffer silently but profoundly when an animal dies. Instead of getting stuck in our grief, though, it helps when we take concrete steps to move forward by talking about our sadness and celebrating our pet's life.

Moira Anderson Allen, the author of Coping with Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet, cautions against bottling up our emotions. She writes: "The most important step you can take is to be honest about your feelings. Don't deny your pain, or your feelings of anger and guilt. Only by examining and coming to terms with your feelings can you begin to work through them."

Take Deliberate Steps to Heal

With this in mind, I recommend taking the following five steps on your road to finding peace and enjoying memories of your beloved pet:

1. Re-visit the five stages of grieving.

2. Reach out for support on social media.

3. Be grateful for those trying to comfort you.

4. Let the tears fall.

5. Make plans to get a new pet.

Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them.

— George Eliot

Take Time to Experience Closure

When my 15-year-old Welsh corgi, Tater Tot, died after a long and slow decline, grief gripped me and wouldn't let go. I kept expecting to get over it as time passed, but the number of days kept stacking up with no relief in sight. I started to feel guilty for crying so much when I hadn't shed a tear on the death of some relatives.

I came to realize that the expression "time heals all wounds" wasn't true as my sadness held on week after week. I needed to take concrete steps to move the grieving process along, comfort myself, and find peace. I finally realized that my sorrow over Tater Tot was tied to my father's unexpected death seventeen years earlier when I had returned home from my honeymoon. As I started my life as a new wife and a first-year kindergarten teacher, I was busy every second of the day and didn't have time to process my dad's passing. When Tater Tot died, I finally got the a chance to mourn both my father and my dog.

In her article, "Grieving the Loss of a Pet," Julie Axelrod explains that it's not unusual for a pet's death to trigger an old loss. She writes, "A companion animal’s death may remind the owner of a previous loss, animal or human. An unresolved loss complicates the current mourning process. It is then important to not only mourn the lost pet, but to take this opportunity to achieve closure on earlier losses."

5 Steps to Grieve the Death of a Pet and Move Forward

1. Re-Visit the Five Stages of Grieving

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was a psychiatrist who studied the grieving process and wrote On Death and Dying, the seminal book on the topic. She developed a grief model that includes five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I first came upon her work when taking an introductory psychology class in high school. I have returned to it throughout my life when needed, especially recently when Tater Tot passed.

Watch this short but helpful video to learn more about the stages of grief.

If you put off grieving, it will catch up with you later.

While each person grieves in their own unique way, it's helpful to understand the 5 stages and realize we're not alone in what we're experiencing. We're normal. When my father died, I had just returned from my honeymoon and was thrust back into a busy school year. I felt like a performer in the theatre with everyone watching me play three distinct roles: the heartbroken daughter, the perky kindergarten teacher, and the adoring new wife. I simply did not have time to take care of myself, to get in touch with my feelings, and to grieve my dad's death.

Take good care of yourself during the grieving process.

With Tater Tot's death, I made a conscious decision to do things differently. I decided to become proactive and deal with my emotions in concrete ways. Based on what I experienced with my dad's death, I knew I could get stuck in the stages of anger and depression for long periods of time.

To combat that, I developed a plan that included exercising more, eating healthier, taking long baths, writing in a journal, and making plenty of time to read, relax, and be alone. I wrote a Dear Tater Tot letter in which I explained to my wonderful dog how much he meant to me and my entire family. My younger son and I printed out digital photos of our dog and created a scrapbook, Our Memories of Tater Tot.

2. Reach Out for Support on Social Media

Thinking back on my dad's death, I recalled what brought me the greatest comfort: People sharing fond or funny memories of him. People hugging me without saying a word. People coming by the house, calling me on the phone, or sending me sympathy cards. People acknowledging my loss and asking how they could help. People inviting me out for lunch or a walk in the park to talk and cry.

Wanting that same kind of support but realizing most folks didn't know about Tater Tot's passing, I posted a death notice on Facebook. This was a surprising move for me because I'm a harsh critic of social media in all its egregious superficiality. After all, do I really need to see a photo of your meal every time you dine at a restaurant or see all your bikini photos while you vacationed in the Caribbean?

Yet, I was deeply touched by the kind words written about my beloved dog, gratified to know he had touched the lives of others in addition to mine. It was a fantastic way for me to connect with fellow animal lovers and bypass those who weren't. There was no point in trying to get sympathy from people who just couldn't relate to such a loss.

3. Be Grateful For Those Trying to Comfort You

I get so annoyed at people who criticize others for saying "the wrong thing" when someone dies. Yes, I agree that some people, feeling awkward in the moment, make insensitive remarks. Several individuals asked me immediately following Tater Tot's death: “When are you getting a new dog?” and a couple made the clichéd comment “He's in a better place now” (believe me, he's was in a damn good place here with me as his nursemaid)! Yet, I so appreciated their attempts and took no offense. Talking about death is awkward so cut people some slack!

When my friend had a miscarriage, she was so prickly about anything and everything people said. I remember her railing against a teenager who said “that's a total bummer" upon hearing the news. I, however, sincerely thanked everyone who commented on Tater Tot's death, knowing it's far worse when people make no effort at all.

Cut people slack when they say the wrong thing.

Seventeen years have passed, but I still remember the folks who chickened out by not saying a darn thing when my dad died. They're the ones who deserve criticism. My new in-laws never said a word to me and that certainly tarnished our early relationship. They were there in full-force to celebrate a wedding but totally mute when acknowledging a death. I think it's far better to stick out your neck and risk saying "the wrong thing" than taking the easy way out by saying nothing. Believe me, that's what really hurts the grieving person!

The word 'happiness' would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.

Crying relieves the stress that comes when a pet dies.

Crying relieves the stress that comes when a pet dies.

4. Let the Tears Fall

When someone weeps in our presence, we instinctively say: “Now, now, don't cry.” We don't say it because we want to make them feel better; we say it because their crying makes us feel awkward. We want to stop it and have everything get back to normal. When we were children, many of us got admonished for being weepy. Our parents told us, “Don't be a cry baby” and “Crying is a sign of weakness.”

But people who are dealing with the death of a loved one need to cry. It's a normal, healthy part of the grieving process. A study conducted at the University of Florida found that 88% of people said a good cry improved their mood while only 8% said it made them feel worse. Crying is also beneficial in the following ways:

  • It reduces tension. It helps our body rid itself of chemicals that raise cortisol, the hormone that causes stress.
  • It helps us express our pain without saying a word. Our tears say it all.
  • It releases all kinds of pent-up emotions: sadness, grief, despair, anxiety, anger, frustration and even joy. When we suppress our tears and bottle up our feelings, we may become depressed.
  • It keeps us healthy. Some cities in Japan even have crying rooms where people come together, watch sad movies, and let the tears fall—all in the name of staying mentally and emotionally sound.

There is sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.

— Washingtonn Irving

5. Make Plans to Get a New Pet

While many people don't want to rush out and “replace” their deceased pet, it's helpful to start making plans for getting a new companion. There are so many dogs, cats, and other animals in need of good homes and adopting one will make you feel a lot better. Plus, the evidence continues to build about the amazing health benefits people derive from owning pets. Research shows having an animal in the family lowers our blood pressure, decreases our anxiety, and bolsters our immunity. Planning for a new pet will keep your mind busy, offer hope, and move along the grieving process so you don't get stuck.

Missing My Dog

These are some ways to heal your heart when your pet dies. I miss my dog every day as I go through the paces of life, seeing all the places in our home where he loved to sleep. But each day becomes easier as I take concrete steps to incorporate memories of him into my life—gaining strength from the time we had together. He was a great dog and I'm a better person from having been his owner.

In this video, a therapist discusses her own experience with losing a beloved pet and the intensity of emotion that she felt.

Do you think it's a good idea to get a new pet when one dies?

Questions & Answers

Question: My puppy passed away recently. My mother and I were the only ones to see her dead body. I know she is in a better place now, but why did I have to see her like that? I know this is a question you can't really answer. How do I make peace with myself and move on from that painful memory of my puppy's death because I'm kinda okay with her death? I don't blame anyone for it. I'm lost.

Answer: I'm so sorry about your puppy's death and your painful memory of seeing her dead body. It's important now that you substitute that tragic image with a happy one. It's time to celebrate your pup's life and remember the good moments.

Hopefully, you have photos of your dog. Choose a favorite one and go to the store and select a beautiful frame for it. Put it on the nightstand next to your bed or someplace where you'll see it each day. Eventually, your sad vision of your dog will be replaced by this happier one.

If you don't have a photo of her, paint a picture or make a drawing of your pup. Depict her doing something she loved: chewing a bone, playing fetch, running through the grass, or cuddling with you.

Give yourself some time, patience, and loving care. What you're experiencing is normal.

© 2015 McKenna Meyers

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