It is normal to grieve over the death of a pet. Our feelings toward them are so special that experts have a term for the relationship: the human-companion animal bond. When this bond is severed, the sense of loss can be overwhelming. Our society does not always offer a grieving pet owner a great deal of sympathy. Even a close friend may comment: “It’s only a cat; you can always get another one.” Such a statement would be heartless given the loss of a friend or family member, but not everyone sees a companion animal in that same light.
When a person dies, friends and relatives pay their respects at the family home or funeral parlor. There is an event at which sorrow and tears are accepted, even expected. Afterwards, during a mourning period, friends and relatives assist and comfort grieving family members until their grief subsides and new routines develop. When an animal dies, there is no such social ritual. Still, the loss affects us, and all the more so if the animal was an integral part of the family. These feelings usually progress through several stages. Recognizing them can help us cope with the grief.
Stage One: Denial
Denial is the initial response of many pet owners when confronted with a companion animal’s terminal condition or death. This rejection seems to be the mind’s buffer against a sharp emotional blow. This stage is especially true for those who experience a sudden, unexpected death. This is a temporary response that carries us through the first wave of pain.
Stage Two: Bargaining
Many times, faced with impending death, an individual may “bargain” – offering some sacrifice if the loved one is spared. The hope that he or she might recover can bring reactions such as, “If Rover recovers, I’ll never skip his regular walk,” or, “I promise to go to church every week if Whiskers gets better.” Bargaining is an expression of hope that the bad news is reversible.
Stage Three: Anger
Anger is sometimes expressed as hostility or aggression. But it may also turn inward, emerging as guilt. Many veterinarians have heard the owners tell them, “What happened? I thought you had everything under control, and now you’ve killed my dog!” Such outbursts help relieve immediate frustrations, though often at the expense of someone else. More commonly, animal guardians dwell on the past. The number of “If only…” regrets is endless: “If only I had taken Kitty to the veterinarian a week ago ….” Whether true or false, such thoughts do little to relieve anger and are not constructive.
Stage Four: Grief/Depression
This is the stage of true sadness. The animal is gone, along with the guilt and anger, and only emptiness remains. It is normal to display grief when a companion animal dies. It is helpful to recognize that other animal guardians have experienced similar feelings and that you are not alone.
Final stage: Resolution
As time passes, the distress dissolves as the pet owner remembers the good times, not the animal’s passing. This is not to say that you won’t hurt anymore, but you will begin to accept the reality of the loss. Remember that to get to this stage may take months or even years.
If you find you are “stuck” in any of these stages and not moving through your grief, you may want to seek help from a professional guidance counselor. In Santa Barbara, C.A.R.E. Hospital also offers grief counseling. For more information, visit carehospital.org/grief.html
What You Can Do About Your Feelings
The most important thing you can do is be honest about your feelings. Try talking to others who have experienced the same type of loss. Many find comfort in creating a memory book with their pet’s favorite stories, pictures, and toys. One website where many grieving pet owners have found help is rainbowsbridge.com. This is an online community of pet guardians who are all grieving the loss of a pet.
When a Friend Loses a Pet
Many times a grieving pet owner just wants to talk about their pet, so make sure that you are there for them. Send a sympathy card specific to pets and, if possible, make a donation in memory of your friend’s pet to a local animal shelter. Be sure to follow up after a few weeks or months to see how your friend is doing. Don’t assume that after a few weeks your friend will “be over it.”
For those of us who surround ourselves with lives more temporary than our own, such as the life of a pet, we will experience loss. Given the joy that our pets bring to us, most of us would choose the grief that we feel, over never having our pet in our lives.