Grieving over a pet? We’re here to help

Grieving is something every one of us will experience in our lifetime, whether through the loss of a family member, friend or pet.

Yet many of us are surprised by the depth of our grief when a pet dies. We knew it was coming (we generally outlive our pets) but now that the day has come, there’s a searing pain in your heart; a feeling of wretchedness you don’t think you’ll ever get over.

Research shows us that grieving the death of our companion animals can be just as painful as grieving the loss of a family member or friend. It doesn’t matter whether death came by accident, was the outcome of an illness or was a carefully considered euthanasia with the help of your vet – it all hurts and hurts a lot. However, there are things you can do when your pet passes to help ease the trauma, and important self-care strategies that can help you process that grief experience.

Firstly, it is important that you – and those close to you – understand and accept that grief over the loss of an animal is perfectly normal. Most pet owners spend more time with their pets than with family members or friends. You share a deep bond with your pet; you’ve experienced ups and downs together, joy, laughter, anxiety. It’s an intense relationship so yes, you’re going to feel tremendous loss.

With any loss, there are 5 accepted stages of grief (though how we experience them can differ from person to person). Psychologist Elizabeth Kübler Ross identified these as Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and finally Acceptance. While the grieving process always follows this sequence, it is not necessarily linear in that we may go from denial to anger and bounce back to denial again before moving on to bargaining so expect this process to take time.
Denial is that stage where you say/feel things like, ‘this can’t be, this didn’t happen’. It’s a denial of the reality.
Anger, the next stage, is, in this context, a healthy emotion in that it helps you to compensate for the pain you are feeling. That anger may be directed at yourself or at someone else (vet, a driver). However, there must come a time when you move on from the anger to Bargaining. “If only I took my pet to the vet, if only if only I hadn’t let him off the leash”. Feelings of depression, ironically, can be a positive sign because you’re almost at acceptance. Depression lasting longer than two weeks, however, demands external intervention.
And finally, acceptance. Psychologists suggest that people with higher emotional intelligence are more easily able to work through these five steps to acceptance but there are other factors which can influence your ability to do this. These include the support you have around you. Empathy – not sympathy – is vital, says cognitive behaviour specialist Demyan Rossouw.

“Sympathy is the knee jerk ,but it keeps you in the dark and the sympathiser risks getting sucked down too. Empathy is a 3-step process for the empathiser: Step 1. While you’re telling me that your pet has passed away I need to see it in pictures, in a movie. This helps me to access my own brain’s emotional centre. Step 2 is acknowledging how I would feel if this movie had happened to me. This helps with Step 3 which is being able to reflect back on the grieving person my own emotions, my own feelings. The importance of empathy is putting in the effort.”
An empathetic partner or family member allows you to grieve; doesn’t say, ‘you need to get over it, it’s just an animal’ or even, ‘she was old, she’s in a better place.’ The empath works to feel what you’re feeling, and that shared emotion helps to heal.

Grieving is, however, a highly personalised experience that is often influenced by culture and social groups.

Here are 7 helpful steps to get you through this emotionally painful experience:

1. Set aside the time to grieve in your own way and release your emotions

We live in a frantically busy world where there’s never enough time to get things done and those experiencing grief can feel angry that life hasn’t slowed down on the outside, while they’re experiencing these painful feelings on the inside, says therapist Adam Clark in Psychology Today. You need time to grieve and to experience your emotions, fully. Give yourself the time to feel, experience, and let the emotions you are experiencing release at regular intervals along your journey through grief, even on a daily basis in the beginning. Otherwise, you might find yourself stuffing your emotions which can cause more pain down the road.

2. Reflect upon the life shared

Start a memory journey, remembering the good times you shared. This may be hard at first but look at this process as a way of honouring your pet. Focus on positive memories which allows your body to experience a different emotion and helps bring you from pain into gratitude for the time spent together. Make sure to not use this method to avoid experiencing pain, we must experience both within the grief process.
Keep a photo of your pet on your phone. Practice an honouring ritual: burning a candle, praying (if you are religious), playing your favourite gentle music.

3. Don’t neglect yourself

Sometimes when experiencing acute grief, we lose our appetites or cannot sleep. Self-care is vital; see it as a way of honouring your pet. One of the reasons we don’t eat or sleep is because we’re experiencing guilt but guilt, says Rossouw, is a wasted emotion. Grieving can be taxing on the body so try to fill your body with nutritious food and maintain a sleep schedule. Gentle music or a calming practice can help. There are plenty of calming apps available through the app store.

4. A calming practice will ease the rage

Our employers allow time off for human deaths but none for pets yet, as we said earlier, pets are often closer to us than our family members. This can manifest in feelings of frustration and anger. Choosing a calming practice such as meditation, breathing, mindful eating, or releasing our body tension can help ease anxieties that may increase during social obligations while we are still experiencing our grief.

5. Maintain routines with your living animals as best you can

Remember that the pet that remains behind mourns too. They miss the routine of the things they used to do together, or the things they did with you which may have lapsed while you grieve. Dogs experience grief and can search for their pack member. Cats may hide or spend more time alone, changing behaviour while they process alongside you. Horses may run the fence line for some time and whinny, trying to receive a return call from their mate. Animals thrive on routines and structure. While you’re grieving, your living pets are also experiencing the loss and absence of your pet and their companion. Try to maintain walking routines and feeding schedules as not to disrupt their process or your own. Routines allow us a sense of structure and familiarity, although the first few times can be painful, these immediate triggers can reduce over time.

6. Find closure

Sometimes we don’t get to say ‘goodbye’ but not having closure makes it incredibly difficult to resume normal life. Saying ‘see you later’ to ones we love can be a crucial step in moving through the grief experience. Memoralise this through a ritual that honours their life. Don’t throw away their toys or bedding. When you’ve reached the acceptance stage, sit with their toys and recall, with a smile, the happy times you had playing with that ball together or chasing that catnip mouse.

7. Ask for help

Although grief is a highly individualistic experience, we grieve within communities. It’s important to recognise when you need support. For some of us it is enough to talk about your loss with a supportive friend; others may need professional help to deal with the pain. There is nothing wrong with asking for help. It may take a lot of courage to do so but acknowledging this need is an essential part of the healing process.
Emotion – coming from the Greek words for energy in motion – helps us to move and shift and finally to accept. Surround yourself with people who care and understand your grief but who are also supportive in your journey to healing. Grieving is a process; some days are really going to get you, other days you’re just fine.

And lastly, don’t rush to replace your lost pet. Each pet is different. Once you’ve worked through your grief, take time to choose that new companion.

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