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How to Grieve the Death of Your Pet and Heal Your Pain in 5 Steps

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 and don't expect those who aren't to understand your sorrow.

Talk about your loss with fellow animal lovers and 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 people suffer silently but profoundly when an animal dies. Instead of getting stuck in grief, though, it helps to take deliberate steps to move forward by talking about your sadness and celebrating your 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 These Deliberate Steps to Heal

1. Take time to experience closure.

2. Review the five stages of grieving.

3. Connect with fellow pet lovers.

4. Let the tears fall.

5. Make plans to get a new pet.

1. Take Time to Experience Closure

When Rachel's 15-year-old Welsh corgi, Tater Tot, died after a long and slow decline, she was gripped by an overpowering sadness. She kept expecting to get over it as time passed, but her days of grieving stacked up with no relief in sight. She felt guilty and ashamed for crying so much when she hadn't shed a single tear on the death of some relatives.

She came to realize as weeks passed that the expression "time heals all wounds" was untrue. Not wanting her pain to turn into prolonged suffering, she decided to become proactive. She chose to take concrete steps to move through the grieving process, comfort herself, and find peace of mind.

Taking time to reflect on her dog’s death, she tied her sorrow over losing him to her father's unexpected death 17 years earlier. She had just returned home from her honeymoon, eager to start her life as a wife and kindergarten teacher, when her dad died suddenly. She was so busy at that time she didn't have a moment to process his passing. When Tater Tot died, she was forced to finally mourn her father as well as her dog.

In her article, "Grieving the Loss of a Pet," Julie Axelrod explains that Rachel's experience is not unusual. A pet's death triggers an old loss for many. 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."

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

2. Review the 5 Stages of Grieving

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was a psychiatrist who studied how people mourn and wrote the seminal book on the subject entitled On Grief and Grieving. She developed a model that includes five stages of the bereavement process: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Many students come upon her work when taking an introductory psychology class in high school or at college. They return to it later in life when a loved one passes, whether it’s a two-legged one, a four-legged one, a feathered one, or one with scales.

While each of us grieves in our own unique way, it's helpful to know the five stages and realize that we're not alone in our suffering. That was the case for Matt when his 15-year-old Siamese, Sienna, died. He revisited the five stages and found comfort in them, realizing that his experiences were normal, universal, and not a sign of weakness or a reason to feel shame.

Reviewing the stages made Matt realize that he needed to cut himself some slack and allow himself to mourn. It prompted him to be kinder to himself so he made a conscious effort to spend time in nature, hike in the mountains, and meditate. By showing himself patience and compassion, he gradually transitioned from feeling depressed to feeling grateful. He gave thanks for the many wonderful years that he and Sienna had together.

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3. Connect With Fellow Pet Lovers

Finding comfort and compassion after a pet’s death means accepting the simple truth that not everyone is an animal lover. Some in your circle of family and friends have never experienced a strong, loving, and transformational bond with a pet. Therefore, they’ll be unable to relate to your sorrow and may even be cold to it.

As such, be aware of this reality and connect with those who will understand your anguish and won’t dismiss it or minimize it. Taylor found this to be true when she was heartbroken after her French Lop, CoCo, died. Her mother had always thought it childish of her to own a rabbit. Her sister had been allergic to CoCo. Some of her friends thought it had been a hassle for Taylor: dealing with the smelly cage, needing to hire a pet sitter when she travelled out of town, and having to clean up after the messes.

Fortunately, Taylor had a strong presence on social media and posted about CoCo’s death on Facebook. She was overwhelmed with responses that expressed love, support, and sympathy. Friends reached out with humorous and heartfelt anecdotes about her rabbit. She was touched by their fond memories of Coco, and it made her happy that others had loved her rabbit just as she had.

Crying can relieve the stress that comes when a pet dies.

Crying can relieve the stress that comes when a pet dies.

4. Let the Tears Fall

When a person starts to weep in their presence, some people say: “Now, now, don't cry.” They’re not showing compassion, wanting that person to feel better. Instead, they’re selfishly wanting the sobbing to stop because it makes them feel awkward and helpless. The crying person, on the other hand, has a need to release their emotions through tears and simply can’t control it.

Research shows that those dealing with the death of a loved one, whether it’s a person or a pet, benefit from a good cry. After all, it's a normal, healthy part of the grieving process. The short story writer, Washington Irving, once wrote: “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.”

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. Weeping is beneficial in the following ways:

  • It reduces tension. It helps your body rid itself of chemicals that raise cortisol, the hormone that causes stress.
  • It helps you express your pain without saying a word; your tears say it all.
  • It releases all kinds of pent-up emotions: sadness, grief, despair, anxiety, anger, frustration and even joy. When you suppress your tears and bottle up your feelings, you may become depressed.
  • It keeps you 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.

5. Make Plans to Get a New Pet

Many people choose to move through the mourning process before rushing to get a new pet. Waiting is a wise decision because unprocessed grief can prevent you from fully embracing your new animal friend. It can weigh you down and make you feel listless. Giving yourself time makes good sense because a new pet requires your full attention and enthusiasm.

Some people, though, include making plans for getting another animal companion a part of their grieving process. It makes them feel happy, hopeful, and energetic about the future. Because they know there are many dogs, cats, and other animals in need of good homes, they feel empowered to save a life.

There’s lots of research that shows the amazing health benefits that people derive from having pets. It lowers blood pressure, decreases anxiety, and bolsters immunity. In the past, pets were forbidden in places such as hospitals, nursing homes, and apartment complexes. Now, they’re warmly welcomed because we know that they improve the quality of people’s lives and enhance their well-being, both physically and emotionally. When you’re ready, getting a new pet is a wonderful thing for them and for you.

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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