Shelter worker, animal rescuer & advocate, Jan has become a well-regarded source of insights & know-how on pet care & behavior nationwide.
The Heartache of Losing a Pet
There are those who see the passing of a pet as just "the circle of life" or think "it's just a dog/cat," and then there are others who experience incredible heartache and sadness at the loss of a pet. This article is for those who have grown to love their pet as a part of their family, a constant companion who has been there through the various stages of their lives and now there is a hole, an emptiness that creates deep sadness and even heartache in their absence. These types of people just need some time and perhaps support through their grieving.
Sometimes we don't realize how much our pets contribute to our lives until they are gone and we experience the loss and the void that they once filled with unconditional love and joy. We have spent years building such special bonds with our pets, and when they die, it is only normal that we feel that emptiness, sometimes with great intensity.
For many people, their pets are that source of unconditional love and support that has gotten them through many different transitions in their lives (whether happy or sad). Their pets have been there to share their lives, to bring them joy, to comfort their sorrow, to make them laugh and to help them forget. For still others, pets are the one constant in their lives, the one thing they can depend on no matter what else happens.
Pets touch our very souls. They teach us how to be better at both giving and receiving love. They teach us how to accept others just as they are, that unconditional kind of love and acceptance.
A pet's dependence on people can give some a sense of purpose in their lives—which can be a great gift to those with tendencies toward depression or loneliness. Pets fill our most primal need for physical connection, touch, and affection.
People are different, as is their relationship with their pets, therefore, there is no single way to grieve or single way grief can affect a person. It can take longer for some to grieve, like individuals who live alone, simply because their pet/companion probably was such an important part of their lives. The same is most likely true for disabled people who lose not only a pet and companion, but someone they depended on for therapy or as a seeing-eye dog, etc. and who was a vital part of their daily living.
With all that they do, give, provide us, is it any wonder that when we lose one of our pets, we have such strong and profound reactions to the loss? And while you may feel that your grief is "not normal," let me assure you that it is indeed very normal.
We must learn that it is not only okay but necessary that we allow ourselves to grieve, allow the intense sadness, the brokenhearted feelings, the guilt, the anger and whatever else we are feeling to come out as they are all part of the grieving process. However each of us grieves the loss is okay and we need to give ourselves permission to go through the process just how it comes to us. We should also know that if our feelings get too intense or our emotions seem to be taking over, that it is okay to distract ourselves by doing something that will keep our thoughts occupied.
The 5 Stages of Grief
Just because it is an animal you have lost does not make grief any different or less painful. The 5 stages of grief still apply.
- Denial and Isolation: It is quite normal to deny the reality, to block out or hide from the truth/fact of the loss.
- Anger: As your initial defensive reaction of denial begins to wear off the pain will start to take hold and in a further attempt at protecting our vulnerable selves the pain is usually redirected as anger.
- Bargaining: When we feel helpless and vulnerable it's a natural reaction to try and regain control and sometimes that manifests into asking all the "if only" questions. Some of us also will start making deals with God (or some other higher power) to reverse the loss or postpone what's inevitable.
- Depression: This can be as mild as just being sad for the loss and the need of a hug, to a more intense and longer-lasting sorrow and sadness that will take some time to work through (support is the best thing for you to seek out here).
- Acceptance: Not to be confused with happiness, the acceptance stage just means you have come to terms with the loss and made your peace. Some come to this stage fairly quickly, others can take years.
Coping with loss is a very personal experience, and though these stages are usually seen in all types of grief situations, each person's time in each stage, the depth they go in each stage, or how they cope and move on from each stage, is completely unique to them.
A Sudden or Expected Death: Either Way It's Tough
Whether you lose a pet suddenly or have been expecting the loss because of age or an illness your pet was suffering from, the heartache and sadness remains. Some think that it should be easier to grieve their passing when the pet is old because it is expected and "part of life," but this doesn't lessen the attachment you have with your pet, nor does it lessen the pain from loss.
In fact, having a pet die from old age could be harder in some aspects; it could mean you have had the pet in your life a lot longer, therefore, the bond is stronger, the memories more plentiful, and the love deeper. It is still a loss, still a void in your life, and still painful.
Then you have the expected passing because of an illness, disease, or injury your pet has been fighting. Of course, this doesn't lessen the pain and heartache when your pet finally passes. If anything, your suffering may be drawn out because you are going through parts of the grieving and heartache the entire time they are sick and once they do pass there can be issues of guilt on top of the sadness and pain from the loss.
And finally, you have the sudden loss of a pet. Just like any loss of a beloved animal that has been part of your daily life, the sudden loss of a pet can be just as painful and devastating as any other form of loss. The sudden aspect of the death may either bring on intense sorrow and heartache or delayed sorrow because of the shock from losing your pet so unexpectedly. In either case, grief and sadness are natural and part of the process.
Euthanasia vs. Natural Death
There is almost always an internal struggle with pet owners over whether their animals passing should be assisted with euthanasia or left to end naturally. This struggle is real and can become something that intensifies their emotions over the loss of their pet.
When a pet that has been a vital part of your life for years becomes ill, develops a fatal disease, or becomes severely injured, many people are sent into a tailspin of sorts and immediately wonder what to do. Is there a way to "fix it" and save their pet? Can I afford to help my pet through it? Is there something they can do to prolong the pet's life so they don't have to let go? Is the pet suffering and if so, do I euthanize my baby?
All of these decisions are tough ones and can be heart-wrenching by themselves, but then you add the passing of your pet to the mix and you have just cranked up the intensity a few hundred points.
While euthanasia is a way to end an animal's suffering, it is often hard to know if an animal is suffering as they don't always convey the true amount of pain they are in (though some will say they can tell). It is also a very personal decision and not everyone will feel comfortable with this route. You need to decide what is right for both you and your pet. One of the hardest things a person can do is to euthanize a pet that has become part of their heart, but at the same time, it can be one of the most humane and loving things you can do as well.
Just know that guilt (either way you decide to go) can enter into the picture and be added to the mix of emotions and feelings you will need to deal with through this process.
Feelings of Guilt
Guilty feelings seem to be one of the first things that creeps in as that age-old: "What if . . . " or "If only . . . " fills our minds with endless possibilities. We wonder if we could have caught an illness earlier could we have saved them. If only we could have figured out a way to get the hundreds needed for an operation, would they have made it? What if they weren't really suffering and I ended their life before I needed to? And on, and on the wheels spin driving us deeper into despair.
Know that there is never going to be an answer and beating ourselves up will do nothing to change things. Instead, we need to remind ourselves of the wonderful life we had with our "babies" and that we have done the best we could for them with what we knew to do.
Know that your pet has loved you unconditionally and loves you still for making the hardest of decisions in their best interest. Pets enrich and change our lives for the better and we, in turn, give of ourselves in ways that we perhaps wouldn't have given without them.
Take Time to Grieve
On top of the sorrow, the heartache and the guilt there are some who may also experience some bouts of anxiety, feeling they may never be able to get over their loss. Just know you will, you just need to give yourself time and space and be gentle with yourself along the way.
Healing takes time, and it's different for everyone, especially over a bond as unique as the one we make with our animals. Be kind to yourself, listen to your body, and give it what it needs, whatever that may be—certain comfort foods, extra sleep, time alone, or time with friends. Grief has no time limit, no guidelines, no boundaries—it is as unique as the people who go through its process.
Don't Forget Your Other Pets
If you have other pets, you need to maintain their normal routine and maybe even show them a little more affection—it can be beneficial for all of you. Surviving pets can also experience loss when one a pet passes. They can also feel a void from the now missing pet or they may even become distressed by experiencing all of your sorrow.
By maintaining daily routines (or, if possible, increasing play/exercise), you will not only benefit the remaining pets in your household, but it just may also help to elevate your mood as well.
Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.
— Anatole France
Moving On: Is It Time for Another Pet?
After you have given yourself whatever time you need to grieve your loss, and this will be different for everyone, you should try to think of a way to honor your pet’s memory. Being a writer, I usually tend to write poems and sometimes short stories about my pet and my time with them. You could add photos from your time with your pet and make a little memory book.
Still, others may choose to add special stone markers to a garden or walkway, have a plaque made, have a special stone placed in a particular animal sanctuary or if you have the land create a special burial place for your pet, cremate your pet and keep their ashes somewhere special, donate to your favorite animal organization in your pet’s name, or even name a new adoptive pet as a junior or "II."
Keeping the memories of your beloved pet alive can be the healthiest way to get through the grief. Then you have the decision of whether or not to bring another pet into your life. There are some who need to jump right back in and fill the void with another pet soon after their loss. They need to have that companionship, the love, the connection to help them deal with their loss.
Then you have those who may be scared to take on another animal, fearing the pain of yet another loss . . . afraid of having to "go through it all again," or those who feel guilty when they consider bringing another animal home (as if they would seem "unfaithful" to the one they just lost). To the latter group, I say to remember that our pets thrive on bringing their "pet parents" happiness, love, and affection. They would not want us to stay sad. They would want us to feel love, give love and share our hearts with another in need of our love.
If you are not ready for another pet though, you could always volunteer at a shelter, foster an animal for a brief time, help transport animals to safer homes, or even take care of someone else’s pet. Anything to continue the love and special connection between humans and animals—what an ultimate way to honor the memory of your pet.
Through it all, please remember how truly blessed you were to be the person that was graced with sharing that special animal’s life and how blessed they were to have such a caring human in their lives. The lessons animals can teach us, the changes that animals can make within us, those are things that can never be taken from you.
© 2013 Jan Kelly