Grieving our Best Friend: How to Honor, and Make it Through, Pet Loss
Losing a pet can be one of the most devastating, and isolating experiences, that people go through. There is no paid time off for pet loss, no help with planning memorials, and it is difficult to talk about because the extent of the pain we feel seems disproportionate when we just say “we lost our pet”. We tend to place grief in a hierarchy and since, of course, the loss of a pet seems to pale in comparison to the really terrible losses out there- the loss of a child or a violent death, we minimize it. This article doesn’t want to minimize that pain, or rank it, or rationalize it away. Let’s honor our furry, scaly, feathered loved ones, and tend to our broken hearts with compassion and dignity.
Why Is It So Hard?
Because pets are the best! All that love and innocence and personality, and it is all for you! We share people in our life with other people, but pets are ours. And we are theirs, we are their whole world. We get their good and their bad but we get it all. Most of us have some complicated people relationships in our life, and pets can be our oasis. They are with us in our bad times. Through illnesses and disappointments and losses they are our companion. They give us love when we are sad, motivate us to get moving when we would rather not, and no matter how cranky, messy or generally unpleasant we can get, they love us still.
We do a lot of psychological healing with pets. Giving love, receiving love, practicing nurturing, being vulnerable. Those are all extremely difficult and essential tasks to fully Human. Based on our past it can be scary or even unsafe to let our guard down with people, so we do it with our pets. So many people I meet with terrible traumas in their past would describe themselves as an “animal person”. All pets are essentially our emotional support animals.
My Pet is Terminal, What Should I Do?
Have a straightforward conversation with your vet. Get a second opinion if you want. It will be extremely difficult to accept the diagnosis, denial is a step in the grief process. For better or worse, armed only with the medical information someone else is telling you, a financial estimate for treatment, and your gut, you now have to decide if it is your pet’s time to go.
Cry. If it isn’t an immediate decision, give yourself time to think about it. Talk to your support system. It is not only okay to consider finances, it is a good thing. It’s unfair but finances should play a role in your decision making.
And love on your pet. Give them special treats, let them sleep where they want, whatever makes their remaining days more peaceful and pleasurable. Tell them everything you need to say to them.
What if I am Making the Wrong Choice?
As long as you holding their best interest at heart, you aren’t. When my beloved pup Joey was diagnosed with lymphoma at three years old, and wasn’t moving much, and went blind in one eye, I remember telling the vet “but she has these really good moments. Sometimes, for 15 minutes she is happy and like her old self”. The doctor asked me if 15 minutes out of the day, with the rest being in pain, was enough. I realized that it wasn’t, that I was holding on for me, not her. Maybe someone else would have made a different choice. But I know it was right for her so while I’m still very much miss her, I know we made the right decision.
Strange, yet Practical Tips for a Pet Being put to Sleep:
Consider the location. You can take your pet into the vet’s office, or you can have a vet come to your home. Think about what your pet would want, but also what you want. Would it be comforting to have the memory of saying goodbye to your pet for the last time in your living room, or would that haunt you?
Make your pet as comfortable as possible, but be prepared you may not get those blankets or other items back.
Possibly the best tip I ever got was to pay for the euthanasia service upfront. I couldn’t imagine having to pay after, or getting a bill in the mail a month later. So, twice I have handed the vet a credit card as soon as we entered the Goodbye Room.
Don’t let anyone rush you. Take all the time you need to say goodbye, and all the time you need to stay with their body once they are gone.
They have Passed, Now What?
Have some sort of ritual or memorial to honor their life and what they meant to you. Why do kids bury goldfish or lizards they have had for two days? They seem to innately understand the importance of saying goodbye. Make a picture collage, get ceramic paw prints, hang up their collar. We can’t and shouldn’t try to ignore their passing.
Also, there is no moral component around grieving. If you want to donate your loved and used pet items to pets that can use it, great. If you need to throw them away because it’s just too painful having them around, great. If you need to keep them for years or forever, great. You are not a bad person for surviving in whatever way you can.
How do I Survive the Pain?
Feel it. When the object of our love passes that love has to go somewhere, so love transforms into grief. Grief is sometimes a river, sometimes a wave, and sometimes a tsunami. Occasionally we can steer it or go with the flow, but other times we just hang on for dear life. Grief is not fixed, it is fluid. Just when we think we will never smile again, we will. And then we will probably cry again.
Talk about it, don’t minimize it. Share the hard stories of their illness or their death, but also share what you loved about them! What made you laugh, what was annoying at the time but now you miss, fond memories. Be conscientious of who you are speaking to about your grief, if they are also grieving it may or may not be helpful to share with them. But then share it with someone else.
Here are the 5 stages of grief. They are not linear, they are not a grief format, but you may find yourself feeling some Denial, Bargaining (what it’s, if only I had…), Anger, Depression and Acceptance. Be compassionate with yourself as you move back and forth and sideways through these stages. There has been a sixth stage recently added, Meaning. Eventually, though no rush, allow yourself to observe what your pet’s life meant to you, what your relationship was, and what meaning you take from them touching your life.
As strange as this may sound, it is honorable to be with a being that we loved and cared for in their death. It is terrible, and it is also a complete circle of the role we played in their lives. We cared for them in all the ways, and this was the last way to care for them.
Not Helpful Things That are Said:
“You can get another one”. “It’s just a dog, cat, bird, fish etc”. “Did you try this treatment”? “Well, I would have done this”. “That’s bad, but at least you didn’t go through what I went through when my pet passed”. “They had a good life”. “You have another one”. “It’s been ___ long, you are still upset?”
What to Say to Someone Experiencing Pet Grief:
“I’m so sorry”. “That’s so painful”. “I’m here for you”. “Would you like to talk about how you are feeling”? “Tell me about your pet”. “Can I share a story that I have about your pet”?
Do I Get Another Pet?
People will have all sorts of opinions about this but it is your personal decision. The pet that you lost can never be replaced, so getting another pet doesn’t diminish their loss or mean that you didn’t care as deeply about them as you did. It might just mean that although you are devastated, you do still have some love to still give.
However, getting another pet too quickly may take away some emotional energy that you need to properly grieve for your lost companion. I’ve done both, gotten another dog a week after my dog Lucy passed, and then waited a year after Joey passed to get Luna. Joey was a difficult puppy, and it made me miss my calm, chill Lucy even more. However, I wouldn’t change anything about it now. And while the house was very quiet for a year and I missed having a dog, I know that I thoroughly grieved Joey and Luna is currently the right dog for our family right now.
Do what is right for you.
Shout Out to my Pets I’ve Loved and Lost:
With love and gratitude to my childhood hamster Fritzy; my childhood cocker spaniel Coco, my first dog as an adult Lucy, and my Ride or Die kelpie/heeler Joey.
Grief over pet loss can be excruciating. It is normal to struggle in that grief, however you do not have to struggle alone. Please reach out to a mental health professional or grief expert for support if need be. You may also look up the website www.grief.com for additional tips.