Pets can become part of your family and brighten up any home. Sadly pets do not live as long as humans and all pet owners have to face the loss of a pet at some stage or another due to old age, illness or accidental death and in some cases animals can get lost or stolen and never return to their home.
You may have to make the difficult decision to get your pet euthanized if they are terminally ill or suffering and you can’t bear them to be in anymore pain. Sometimes veterinary bills for treatment for a sick pet may be too expensive and you can’t afford it but are torn because of all the love and pleasure your pet has given you. Deciding to euthanize a pet is probably one of the hardest decisions you will ever have to make in your lifetime and you can feel immense guilt and sadness for even just thinking about it.
Recent or impending pet loss is a devastating blow for loving pet owners and can be overwhelming. It can be difficult to think of our lives without them and homes can feel very empty without them. You may feel you have lost your best friend. Everyone who lived with the pet is affected so you may have deal with other people’s emotions as well. Other pets can get upset and miss their friends awfully as well.
It is important to understand that grieving pet loss is a process, you can experience the same emotions when a pet dies as loosing a family member or friend; you need to allow yourself time to experience your emotions and time to heal. The very things that make animals different than humans often make them more endearing. An animal who doesn’t talk can’t pass judgment or give you the silent treatment or withhold companionship and love. For many, pets provide a source of unwavering love, affection and companionship. The qualities of a beloved pet are hard to match in human form. The loss of that companion can be heartbreaking.
Common emotions when you lose a pet are:
Sadness or Sorrow: you feel terribly sad, are crying a lot or are feeling completely numb, you may disinterested in normal activities like eating, going to work, going out, exercising especially if you are used to bringing your pet for a walk, your concentration suffers, you hate being in your home, etc. It is important to remember that these intense feelings will fade with time and you need to take care of yourself (eating, sleeping, etc) until they do start to fade. Like any form of depression you should contact your doctor if these feelings continue for a long period of time. Don’t be embarrassed to say why you are feeling so down. The sight of their belongings or seeing something that reminds you of them can cause you to burst into tears irrelevant where you are at the time. You may decide to throw out all their belongings as you can’t bear to see any of it. Experts advise not to throw everything out immediately as you may decide later you wished you had kept something of theirs, hide it out of sight until you feel you are able to face them and then make the decision what you want to keep and what you can give away. Animal shelters will take in your pet’s food and belongings if they are good condition and you can walk away knowing that they will be put to good use.
Guilt: you keep thinking should you have done more for your pet. If they were sick you keep thinking if you caught it earlier would it have saved them, if they were in an accident should you have been more careful – making sure the gate was shut, holding their lead tighter, should you have kept them inside instead of letting them wander around like many cats do, if only you had put those tablets in a cupboard where they couldn’t get them, there is a variety of thoughts that can go through your head to make you feel guilty. You regret that you didn’t spend more time with your pet, not playing with them enough, not giving more cuddles and not giving them more treats & toys and not telling them enough how much you loved them and how wonderful they were, giving out to them for dirtying your floor when they came inside with wet, muddy paws, not taking more photos of them. Try to put those guilty feelings aside and remember you did your best, you loved your pet and they loved you back, you cared for them so they had a happy & contented life and think of the joys you shared together.
Anger: You can feel very angry at everyone involved somehow in the loss – at yourself, family members, your vet, the world, even your religious beliefs can be brought into question. You want to blame them, snap or shout at them. You can also feel angry with family and friends who are not animal lovers and don’t understand how you are feeling, in some cases belittling your feelings.
Unfortunately this emotion is not useful and you can damage other relationships if you are not careful. Remember that everyone did the best they could, in the case of non animal lovers it is not their fault that they have never experienced the unconditional love you receive from a pet and how a human life can improve when a pet comes into it.
Acceptance: Acceptance is the final stage of the grieving process. At this point, you are able to accept that your wonderful friend has died. You start focusing on the wonderful memories you have and the times you enjoyed together. There still may be times when you experience deep sadness, anger, or guilt at our loss, but you can recover from these times faster, and look forward rather than backward. At this point, you may consider looking for a new pet, not to replace your lost friend, but to have someone to enjoy life with.
In addition to these stages, other emotional reactions may be seen. People can experience shock if the death of their pet was sudden and unanticipated, and may experience an emotional numbness. If a pet is missing, the uncertainty of what may have happened to the pet can produce worry and anxiety. When a pet disappears, children may be especially fearful of becoming lost or separated from their family.
In an ambiguous loss, the whereabouts or cause of death of the pet is unknown. The pet may have been lost or been stolen, or the owner may have needed to surrender the pet to an animal shelter. In these situations, there is seldom any 'closure’. The owner does not know when or if the pet has died, or if lost, whether the pet will ever come back. As a result, when to stop searching and when to start the grieving process is unsure. There may also be additional guilt associated with this type of loss.
Pet Loss Compared to Human Loss
Grief upon the loss of a pet is a normal response, and a very individual one. For some people, grieving for a pet that has died may be a more difficult process than grieving for a human loved one. One reason is that the support network of understanding and caring people may be smaller. If a person has lost a human loved one, the friends, family, co-workers, etc., will all be understanding. They may send cards, flowers, and offer food and companionship. Your employer may offer you time off work to grieve for your loss. This is often not the case when a pet dies. A funeral or memorial service for the deceased person will bring people together to provide mutual support and a sense of closure. Again, in most cases, this does not occur upon the death of a pet. Time off work is never offered for the death of pet and you are expected to get over and get on with it quickly. Hurtful comments such as “Why are you so upset”, “It was only a cat” and “You can get another one” may add to the grief and feeling of isolation and loneliness. Even close friends and family may not know how to help you or what to say. The acute phase of grief usually lasts about 10 days and often hits in unpredictable waves.
How grief is expressed
In the book, The Human-Animal Bond and Grief*, the authors describe five manifestations of grief.
Physical: Crying, nausea and loss of appetite, inability to sleep, fatigue, restlessness, and body aches and stiffness are typical manifestations of grief.
Intellectual: When grieving, people often experience an inability to concentrate, confusion, and a sense that time is passing very slowly.
Emotional: As described above, many emotions can be expressed in the course of the grieving process. Irritability, a lowered sense of self-worth, resentment, and embarrassment are also common feelings.
Social: Some grieving people often withdraw, may be reluctant to ask for help, and feel rejected by others. Others may show an increased dependency on other people, or an increased need to 'keep busy' and overcommit to activities.
Spiritual: The death of a pet may result in a person bargaining or feeling angry with your spiritual leader like God. The grieving person may try to find some meaningful interpretation of the death, and question what happens to pets after they die and whether pets have souls.
Help and Healing
It has been shown that when grief can be expressed, the time needed for healing is often less. Similarly, if the expression of grief is restricted or withheld, the healing process may take much longer.
In addition to talking with others, to do something often helps us work through our grief. By doing something positive during this time of sadness, we expand our focus by celebrating the life of the pet.
Activities which may help include:
· Holding a funeral or memorial service
· Planting flowers or a tree in memory of the pet
· Making a charitable donation
· Drawing or Painting a picture, making a clay sculpture or doing needlework of something that reminds you of your pet (you could do this yourself, or have it done by a professional)
· Writing a letter to your pet
· Placing your pet's nametag on your keyring
· Writing a poem, song, or story
· Composing music or a song
· Creating a memorial photo album or scrap book
· Framing a photograph or creating a photo collage
· Put your pet's picture in a photo-display box (one that has a place in the top for a photo). Put some of the pet's treasures inside the box, such as a collar or a lock of hair.
· Volunteering your time
· Talking to others who have lost their beloved pet either online or in person
· Walk in the woods, exercise or take a yoga class. Anything that gets you moving for at least a short time during the day can help lift your spirits.
· Place a memorial stone or marker in your garden, even if you have not buried your pet at home.
· Keep a journal to help you through the grieving process. Record your pet's life story in that journal.
· Build your own website in tribute to your pet.
· Put a special statue (not necessarily a funeral marker) in a garden spot that your pet loved. E.g., a statue of a pet, or of an angel, or St. Francis.
· Put your pets picture and memorial text on Facebook.
People who have a pet who has died need to talk to someone. Often family members and friends are very supportive, but in some instances, they may not understand how important your pet was to you. It is important to find someone who does understand.
Remember the good times that you shared with your pet. It will help you deal with the loss. Dig out all those pictures of your pet and your family.
You may find it more difficult to cope around feeding time or the time you would walk or play together. You can either stay busy during these times or you can take this time to talk with someone or do something that will help you remember your pet.
There are certain circumstances which can intensify the grief. If a person has recently suffered other losses, feels responsible for the death, or has never fully grieved an earlier death, the grieving process is often more complex. If the pet died of a disease similar to one which the owner or a loved one currently has or has had in the past, the grief can also be compounded.
If the pet has shared a significant event in the owner's life e.g.; was a gift from a partner, family member or friend, the pet alerted the owner of a fire or otherwise 'rescued' the owner, or the pet has 'gotten them through' a difficult period in their life, grief can be compounded. When the pet was a significant source of support for the person, e.g., the person lived alone, adjusting to the death of the pet may be extremely difficult.
In some instances, when the pet dies, the owner also loses a significant activity. For instance, when a working dog dies, the owner has lost not only a pet, but a co-worker, someone who has shared activities with the owner many hours of the day. People who lose an assistance dog may lose their independence and the ability to even perform simple daily activities.
Some children or adolescents cannot remember life without the pet. For them, too, loss of the pet may be especially difficult and hard to understand, this may be their first big loss.
In all of these situations, talking to a professional experienced in grief counselling (bereavement counsellors, clergy, social workers, physicians, psychologists) is often advised and can assist the healing process. Support groups, pet loss hotlines, and books on pet loss can also be helpful.
Books you might find helpful
'Absent Friends', by Laura and Martyn Lee., published by Henston.
'Coping With Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet'; 2nd Ed., by Moira A. Anderson, 1996, Alpine Pubns. ISBN 0931866979
'The Final Farewell; Preparing For and Mourning the Loss of Your Pet'; by Marty Tousley and Katherine Heuerman, 1997, Our Pals Publishing Co. ISBN0965712818
'Loving and Losing a Pet: a Psychologist and a Veterinarian Share Their Wisdom'; by Michael Stern and Susan Cropper, 1998, Jason Aronson Publishers. ISBN 0765701162
'Pet Loss: A Thoughtful Guide for Adults and Children'; by Herbert A. Nieburg, Arlene Fischer and Martin Scot Kosins, 1996, Harper Perennial Library. ISBN 0060926783
'A Special Place for Charlee: A Child's Companion Through Pet Loss'; by Debby Morehead and Karen Cannon, 1996, American Animal Hospital Association. ISBN 0965404900
Should I have a funeral for my pet?
If you feel that a funeral would help you initiate the process of mourning and memorialize your pet’s life, you should have a funeral for your pet. Make your decision about a funeral based on what would be most helpful to you and others who loved the pet. For instance, if your pet was the beloved family dog, and you think a funeral would help your children say goodbye to the pet, it would probably be the right decision. If funerals generally depress you and you wish to do your grieving in another way, that is appropriate too.
If you choose to have a funeral, you can follow a traditional funeral format by inviting friends who knew your pet to your home, the woods, or another meaningful place. Use whatever poetry, spiritual readings, and/or music works best for you.
Death of a Family or Child’s Pet
Tell the truth regarding the death of a pet. They don’t need all the details but they need to know what is going on. Children are very observant and will find out the truth in the end and they can feel betrayed or lose trust in a parent if not told the truth. Allow your child to help with the preparations; they may have some very strong ideas of what to do with their pet. If the pet is to be buried, the child should always be given the option to be there. Burying the pet without the child's knowledge can, again, make the entire grieving process more difficult for the child, and again make the child less trusting of his parents at a time when he really needs them. They may want to put some items in the pet’s coffin like a letter to the pet, a favourite toy that they both liked, a favourite blanket of theirs. They may not understand the whole process of death but it may help them to make their pet as comfy and buried with items they loved.
If at all possible, prepare the child ahead of time for the death. Mementos can be very important for children, and they may want some pictures of them and the pet, a plaster cast of the pet's foot, a lock of the pet’s hair, etc.
Many factors can contribute to how a child will feel when their pet dies. The child's age and maturity are important factors. As with older people, the relationship the child had with the pet, the circumstances of the pet's death, and other events or losses the child has experienced will influence the grieving process. Parent and others actions and ability to provide support will also play an important role in helping the child work through the grief. Remember if you hide your grief they may feel they have to hide theirs, don’t tell them to be strong, let them grieve. You should also tell their teachers about their loss.
Some generalities on how children may respond differently to the loss of a pet, as related to age are discussed below.
Infants and Children up to two years: Infants and very young children may not understand the death of a pet, but they are very aware of the emotional state of those around them. Reassuring them by hugging and holding them, and keeping the household routine as normal as possible will help.
Toddlers and Pre-school Children: In general, children under 7 years of age do not understand that death is permanent. They will need help in understanding the pet will not wake up or come home. Do not try to hide a pet's illness or death from a child. They are often the first to sense that something is wrong. Trying to isolate them from a pet's death may cause them to feel abandonment or betrayal, and takes away their right to say good-bye. Help them to know it is okay to ask questions (they usually have many) and feel sad. Even children at the age of two can experience feelings of grief and sorrow. Underplaying the significance of a pet's death may result in a child feeling no one would care if they, too, died.
School-age children: Children between the ages of 7 and 12 can understand the permanence of death. They may ask many questions about how and why the pet died. Children over 12 years of age (adolescents) may have a very difficult time recovering from grief and may not be open about how much emotional pain they are experiencing. Adolescents should not be put in the position of having to take on extra responsibilities such as caring for siblings during this time of crisis.
Euthanasia: Euthanizing your pet can result in considerable confusion for a young child. Simply explain that it is a painless injection of a powerful medication is given to the pet, which allows the pet to die and not suffer anymore, explain it is the best thing for the pet as you don’t want them to suffer or be in pain and that the pet is not going to get any better. In general, children under the age of eight are too young to be present during the procedure. If a child is going to be present at the procedure, it is best to have a pre-euthanasia session with the veterinarian to explain what will happen. At this point, it can be determined if it is better for the child not to be present during the procedure, but instead, to be invited into the room immediately afterwards.
The words 'put to sleep' or 'went away' should not be used with young children, since it may cause them to feel even more confused. They may fear falling asleep themselves, because they think they may not wake up. Some children become terrified if they are told they are going to be 'put to sleep' before surgery. Or they may feel abandoned and that their pet did not love them and therefore ran away.
If you couldn’t afford to keep the pet alive the child may believe her parents would not be able to take care of her if she became ill. In these situations, reassure the child that she will always be cared for. The child should also be told that the injection the pet received is not the same as what she receives at the doctors or hospital.
Expressing feelings: Young children are less able to express their feelings in words and are more likely to 'act out' what they feel. They may show anger or aggression in various situations that do not seem connected to the animal's death. They may start displaying regressive behaviour such as bed-wetting and thumb-sucking. They may experience separation anxiety or complain about not feeling well. Activities such as those described above may help the child work through their feelings. Children of this age may think it was something they did or thought that caused their pet to die, and blame themselves. Even if they do not express it, it is often helpful to reassure the child that he/she was not responsible for the death of the pet. Remember to talk to them and let them talk to you.
Try to do activities with them that they can express their feelings without words:
· Paint or draw a picture of their pet and frame it, they can decide where it is displayed.
· Make a photo collage of pictures of their pets
· Plant some flowers, plants or a tree, your child can choose what to plant and where to put it, they may want to put it in a place where the pet liked to lie or sit.
· Write a poem or story about or to their pet.
Books you might find helpful
The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages , by Leo Buscaglia (Slack, 1982)
Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children , by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen (Bantam Books, 1983)
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney , by Judith Viorst (Macmillan, 1971)
It Must Hurt a Lot: A Child's Book About Death , by Doris Sanford (Multnomah Press, 1986
When a Pet Dies , by Fred Rogers (Putnam, 1988)
All God's Creatures Go To Heaven , by Amy Nolfo-Wheeler (Noël Studio, Inc., 1996)
Children and Pet Loss: A Guide for Helping , by Marty Tousley (Our Pals Publishing, 1997)
Pet loss and the Elderly
For many elderly people, their pet is their sole companion, and some will say, their only reason to live. Many elderly do not have a strong support system and live alone, away from family. They are at a time in their lives when they are experiencing the deaths of friends their same age. Their pet may become the sole focus of their attention and affection. Their entire daily routine may revolve around their pet.
For some older people, their pet may be their last link to the past, and the loss of the pet can trigger grief over previous losses. Their pet may also have been a source of security, barking at strangers or accompanying them on walks.
Elderly people may experience more guilt when their pets die. If they are on fixed incomes and have few financial reserves, not being able to pay for expensive treatments can add a sense of failure to the deep grief of losing a pet. They may also have put off visits to the veterinarian because of transportation or financial constraints, and blame themselves for not getting the pet examined sooner.
Whereas younger people are often able to get a new pet, the elderly may not be in a position to do so. Housing restrictions, financial considerations, transportation problems, and their own health and expected life span may contribute to their decision that they cannot get another pet. Especially if they have had a pet during most of their life, this can be an extremely traumatic event.
Will my other pets grieve?
We all know of animals who have stopped eating, playing, or interacting when another pet in the household has died. They are experiencing a loss of their own, plus they often sense the owner's sorrow as well. After a pet dies, we can help the other pets in the household by keeping their routines as unchanged as possible. Increasing their activity through going for walks or playing with toys may be helpful. This will not only benefit your pet, but help you too.
The best way to help a pet in this situation is to let them see the body of their companion before cremation or burial if possible. Animals are naturally able to recognize death as a permanent change and they’ll spend less time searching for the missing pet. Keep in mind that you’ll most probably notice their behaviour returning to normal at about the same time you start to feel less devastated.
You may need to give your surviving pets a lot of extra attention and love to help them through this period. Remember that, if you are going to introduce a new pet, your surviving pets may not accept the newcomer right away, but new bonds will grow in time. Meanwhile, the love of your surviving pets can be wonderfully healing for your own grief.
Should I get a new pet right away?
Generally, the answer is no. One needs time to work through grief and loss before attempting to build a relationship with a new pet. If your emotions are still in turmoil, you may resent a new pet for trying to "take the place" of the old-for what you really want is your old pet back. Children in particular may feel that loving a new pet is "disloyal" to the previous pet.
When you do get a new pet, avoid getting a "lookalike" pet, which makes comparisons all the more likely. Don't expect your new pet to be "just like" the one you lost, but allow it to develop its own personality. Never give a new pet the same name or nickname as the old. Avoid the temptation to compare the new pet to the old one: It can be hard to remember that your beloved companion also caused a few problems when it was young!
A new pet should be acquired because you are ready to move forward and build a new relationship-rather than looking backward and mourning your loss. When you are ready, select an animal with which you can build another long, loving relationship-because this is what having a pet is all about!
Pet Loss Services
Irish Pet Crematorium
Solace – Pet Bereavement Councilling