Grief with Pet Loss

As Barbara Meyers reminds us, “the human-animal bond is strong and resilient enough tolerate every human defect, alteration, and failure . . . (the bond) is not a substitute or a replacement for human companionship, rather, it is one of many relationships each of us is capable of enjoying.” Unfortunately, when we lose an animal companion, many people are unable to understand the depth of our grief, and we may be surprised to find that family and friends are not able to support us in the way we would hope.

Disenfranchised Grief

Pet Loss is a form of “disenfranchised grief”. Kenneth Doka defines this as the grief over a loss that we’re “not accorded the right to grieve.” That is, society at large says that we have no right to the intense emotions we may experience when a pet dies. This can make our grief more difficult to deal with, as the lack of social support leaves us fewer places to go with our feelings.

Euthanasia

Complicating pet loss for many is the fact that we often must decide whether or not to euthanize an animal. While it’s a common decision to have to make, there are few guidelines available for us. We’re often told “we’ll know when it’s time”, but in fact we may not know. People often agonize about whether they euthanized an animal too soon, or waited too long.

Healing

Grief has its own timeline. To quote Beth McHugh, “There are no cut and dried rules for grieving; only that it takes longer than you might think.” We all grieve at our own unique rate. That being said, grief is a process we participate in. Here are some things that may help you with your healing.

  1. Give yourself permission to grieve the loss of your animal companion.
  2. Know that grief comes in waves, and you’ll have good days and bad days. A bad day after feeling good doesn’t mean that you’re “backsliding.”
  3. If you want, find a way to memorialize your pet that feels right to you. This could include a memorial service, making a scrapbook or memory box, or volunteering at or donating to an animal shelter in your pet’s name.
  4. Be patient with yourself. Get plenty of rest and remember to eat and drink healthily.
  5. Consider talking with a grief counselor or going to a support group if that feels helpful.

Children

Margaret Muns, DVM, reminds us to realize that the death of a pet can be very difficult for a child. Her suggestions for helping children grieve the loss of a pet include:

  1. Giving the child permission to talk about the loss (which they may need to do repeatedly).
  2. Not to use euphemisms like “put to sleep”, but to instead explain honestly to a child, in an age appropriate way, what is going on.
  3. To explain the permanence of death. Younger children especially may need help with this.

The ASPCA also suggests that we give ourselves time before getting another pet, whether or not our children (or ourselves) are feeling the emptiness losing a pet can bring. Although there is no set time, it’s important to be sure that the new pet isn’t an attempt to “replace” one we’ve lost.

Hospice SLO County offers both individual and group support for the loss of an animal companion. There is no charge for our services. Contact us at (805) 544-2266 to find out more about our services.