Losing anyone you love is a heartbreaking, devastating experience. Losing a pet is just as devastating, though the loss is often not widely accepted for being valid. When we lose a human loved one – a spouse, child, family member, or close friend – we are expected to grieve and are met with sympathy and condolences.
We are given that time and space to process that grief without being pushed to accept it or forget the loss. Unfortunately, many times pet owners experience a wholly different set of expectations after their dog or cat dies, leading to further feelings of isolation and pain.
Yet science has shown that the grief of losing a companion animal can be just as painful as losing a family member or friend. It’s time to normalize grief and learn how to remember our special friend without feeling guilty or like we are overreacting to the situation.
Losing a pet is hard. It’s not as simple as just getting over it. In the aftermath, we are left with complicated emotions, painful memories, and several questions that we don’t always know how to answer.
We’ll explore those questions and a lot more in this guide to processing your grief in a healthy manner while addressing coping mechanisms to help you through this time. We’ll also face one of the hardest questions – when (and if) are you ready to bring a new pet into your household.
Grief isn’t a straight line. Often our feelings about it may be complicated and difficult to explain, even to the most important people in our lives. Understanding why we feel the way we do may be the key to helping us come to terms with our loss.
For many, losing a pet can be like losing a child. With their shorter lifespans, pets never reach the age of human adulthood; it’s easy to see them as children. They depend on their humans for food, shelter, and care.
When they pass, their owner will mourn that loss. For most pet owners, our beloved animals are members of our family and we feel as deeply for them as we do any other member.
A pet may be the only social connection someone has. This is especially true for elderly pet owners. Emotional support animals often have several functions in the lives of their human companions.
Many times, someone might not be able to make the same connections with other humans, whether because of depression, anxiety, or physical disabilities. Through their pet, they can lead a more fulfilling life. When that connection disappears, it can make them feel isolated and alone.
Pets offer unconditional love to their owners over a lifetime of experiences. They love their humans wholly and without reservations, once that human has earned their trust. The love between a pet and owner is uncomplicated and easy. There’s no fear of rejection. No anxiety over losing affection.
Your pet doesn’t care if you’re balding, overweight, short, or attractive. They love you for you. Losing that connection - and that feeling of total acceptance – is devastating for anyone.
Animals can help us establish a routine and take responsibility. Often, pets occupied a specific role in our lives. They have set feeding times, walking or grooming times, and many other aspects that can take a large portion of our day.
It may feel like a huge part of their day has simply vanished after the death of a beloved pet. Losing that routine can make the loss of a pet cut deeper.
Feeling as if you are not allowed to grieve because your loss is an animal can lead to furthering your complications of grief. It’s okay to allow yourself to feel your loss without feeling like you must hide it or push it away.
Those feelings can make it hard to process your emotions and prolong your sorrow. Don’t let someone else’s expectations control how you feel and how you express that feeling.
In many cases, grief stems in part with the decision to put a loved pet down. There may be some guilt involved in that decision, as we cannot ask a pet what they want or what is best for them; we must make that choice alone. Many times, if you ask yourself if it is the right time to euthanize a pet, then it is time. The alternative is prolonging an animal’s suffering due to an unwillingness to let go.
Euthanasia at the right time may be the last gift of love you can give to your pet. While a complicated mix of grief and guilt are normal, remember that nothing is more unselfish than knowing when to let go.
Grief is universal. So too is the process human beings go through as they grieve. While we all experience grief differently, we find ourselves moving through five stages. These five stages were originally introduced by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. Since then, psychology has settled on a more nuanced look at the subject and the individual needs of grieving people. However, the stages are still used to help people understand how grief works.
There are a few important things to note about the process of grief. While there are five stages, they do not necessarily occur in this order. It is just as likely that a person shifts between the stages in any order, depending on how they are affected by grief.
Denial is the first stage of grief and it helps us survive the loss in the immediate aftermath. When we suffer a devastating loss, we may begin to think that the world is meaningless and without logic or order.
We may quickly find ourselves going numb. There is simply too much information – and too many consequences and repercussions – for us to deal with all at once. This process is like going into a kind of shock where you aren’t living in reality. Instead, you exist in a state where “perhaps there’s been a mistake.”
For most people, this is the shortest period of grief. As the reality of the situation sets in, we can move beyond this initial shock and begin the actual healing process.
Once the initial denial and shock wear off, anger most likely comes next. Anger is necessary for grief and it cannot be suppressed, even if you can control how you outwardly express it. Anger has no limits. It is a primal, deep emotion that we often find on top of our complicated emotions about loss and death. This isn’t fair. Life is cruel. I don’t deserve this. All of these are common thoughts.
You may also feel anger towards the deceased pet; that too is normal. Anger is still part of maintaining your connection to them and it is okay to feel that way.
Anger grounds us when we feel lost or abandoned. It keeps us connected to reality. While our society fears the emotion, expressing your anger in a healthy manner is crucial to allowing yourself to move forward.
When something bad happens, we can find ourselves making internal bargains to fix the problem. We may ask God or some higher power to step in. We make absurd promises like “If I get this promotion, I will next do X again.” Or “If my sibling survives this car accident, I’ll never fight with him again.”
These aren’t logical bargains, but they are normal. Most of the time, they provide false hope that cannot become a reality. In grief, bargaining is tied to guilt and constant “what if” statements that we cycle through to defend us from reality.
If only I’d been home that day…
If only I’d closed the door sooner, so they didn’t get out…
If only we’d taken him to the vet last week…
It’s when our bargaining fails, and we must face reality, that we enter the depression stage. In this stage, you may find everything overwhelming once again, though this may come with a sense of numbness and the urge to withdraw from your life.
Getting out of bed is difficult. Being around people, even friends and family feels like an effort instead of enjoyment. You may not feel like talking or eating to the point of deciding that most things are hopeless.
It during this period that you may experience thoughts of suicide, finding your emotions too much and too present without the hope of things ever being better.
Acceptance is not the same as an absence of loss or being okay with death. Many people never entirely come to terms with death. That too is okay. Sadness and regret can still be present when we accept a loss – but they may not be the primary emotions we feel.
In this stage, we find that while we are still hurting, we can look up and say, “I’m going to be okay.” Things are no longer as hopeless as they once appeared; we can work through the loss and see a future for ourselves beyond it. The fog of depression begins to lift, and we start having good days again interspersed with the bad ones.
Eventually, those will become more good days than bad.
There are no shortcuts to get through grief. Nor is there any limit on the time you grieve. There are, however, coping mechanisms that may help you get through the worst of your grief. We’ve outlined our advice to help you cope below.
This is the most important thing to remember when you’ve experienced a loss. It doesn’t matter how someone else would feel in this situation or what they say. You are the only one experiencing your emotions and no one, not even you, can tell you that they are wrong.
Processing your grief can be overwhelming. It feels like it may never end. Understand that this process cannot be hurried or forced. There’s no “typical” timetable for grief or how you’re allowed to behave in that time. Whatever you’re feeling, it’s important to let yourself feel it. Don’t push those feelings away. Be patient with yourself when those emotions get overwhelming or else, you’ll only have a harder time handling them down the road. Set aside time to let yourself slow down, breathe, and grieve.
Grief is an isolating experience. It’s difficult to reach out even when we know we those around will listen. Find at least one person you can talk to – a close friend, a relative, or even call your veterinarian and ask for the name of someone else who recently lost a pet. There are several online support groups for pet lovers going through what you are. You need other people. Reach out; you won’t regret it.
The time you spent with your pet is important; remembering that time can be a boon in the aftermath of their passing. Write down your thoughts and feelings now; it can help you explore your feelings. If you’d like, you can share your feelings with your support system. Ask yourself questions.
These are all things that will help you remember the good experiences and help you keep those memories fresh.
Don’t be afraid to talk about your pet. Share those photos and memories on social media and talk about what they meant to you. Share your grief. You might be surprised how many other pet lovers out there understand exactly what you are going through and might be there to help you through it.
This can be especially vital if you have other family members or other pets that rely on you. Other family members may be experiencing similar feelings of loss. Even pets experience symptoms of grief and they may become distressed by your behavior or a change of routine as well. Taking them for a walk, making sure their needs are met, and generally spending time with them can help you, too. Nothing makes you feel better than spending time with someone – or a furry friend – that loves you.
After suffering a loss, we can make hasty choices that we may come to regret later. You don’t have to donate or throw out all their food, toys, or bedding. You don’t need to immediately adopt another kitten or puppy. You have time before you need to do anything life-changing.
In times of stress, it’s easy to find yourself at the end of your physical and emotional reserves. You need to take the time to look after your needs – both emotional and physical – before you can truly process your grief. Spend time with your friends and family; don’t discount quality time with the people who care about you. Get a proper amount of sleep, eat healthy meals, and try to be active as much as you can.
There are many ways to honor your pet’s memory. Finding the best way for you isn’t always easy but it can help you process your sorrow and grief. We’ve even outlined several suggestions to do just that later in the article.
Sometimes, helping someone you love through grief is almost as challenging as suffering the loss yourself. While losing a person isn’t the same as losing a pet, the grief a person feels afterward is the same. For many people, this isn’t just losing an animal. It’s losing a family member. Recognizing that will make it easier to help someone in that situation.
Even if you do understand the loss, it can still be difficult to know how to help someone in that situation, especially if you aren’t a pet lover yourself. Even if you are, we’ve put together some advice to help you navigate a grieving friend’s loss while remaining compassionate and without pushing them away.
The best thing you can do is to help anyone suffering a loss is simply to be there for them. When someone is grieving, they need to know that someone is there. By letting that person know you’re willing to listen, you are already bridging the worst feelings of loneliness.
Encouraging them to express their grief is equally as important, so is validating their feelings. The best thing you can hear in times of sorrow is the simple phrase “It’s okay to feel like this.”
When someone is ready to talk, you should be ready to listen to them when they do. This is sometimes harder; we often have the urge to help to fix a situation when our friends are upset. Grief isn’t something to be fixed, despite how much it hurts to see our friend going through it. Practice active listening when you’re engaging with them: asking questions when appropriate and sharing your own stories about the pet if you met them.
You may not be able to cheer them up; that’s okay. In the end, it’s more important to give them a safe space to express their true feelings.
Grief can cause people to behave out of character, especially in the early days. They can lose sight of their own physical and emotional health. Sometimes the simple act of calling to check-in or just stopping by to drop off food can be a good reminder for the grieving person to look after themselves.
Many times, when an older person has lost a beloved pet, it can be even more devastating. They may live alone already and experience a more heightened sense of loneliness and depression. They are more vulnerable to these feelings and you may want to spend more time with them if possible.
The last thing anyone wants to hear is “I know how you feel.” Even when we’ve experienced something similar or comparable to their loss, no one is interested in comparing or quantifying them in terms of who has had it worse. Saying something like that can make the grieving person feel like their loss is minimal or that they are grieving too much if something worse has happened to someone else.
While knowing what to say is crucial, knowing what NOT to say to a grieving person is just as important. Sometimes we don’t know what to say or how to react. So, we’re here to point out some of the less effective phrases for the situation.
Children take longer to grieve than adults. The loss of a beloved pet under any circumstances is going to take time for them to understand (if they are very young) and to work through their feelings. Children can become just as depressed as adults, leading to lethargy, lack of appetite, and even preoccupied with death. Those are normal behaviors from a grieving child. But if these more obvious symptoms continue for longer than a few weeks, you may want to reach out to a grief counselor.
Getting your child to talk about their feeling is the first step to helping them come to terms with the loss.
Tell your child that it’s okay to feel sad or upset about their pet. Make sure they know that these feelings are normal and that they won’t be punished for it, even if it means they might act out when they can’t process it immediately. They may need a lot of physical affection. A scared and grieving child may need it more than even during this period.
Talk to your children about what happened, even if in vague terms. Kids are smart; they pick up on your distress and unhappiness. If they do that without knowing what is going on, it can lead them to become more stressed and anxious about death. Include your child in anything that is being planned. If they understand what is happening, there are better equipped to manage their feelings through the process.
Kids often process things by being active in some way. It may help them to create a memorial for their pet. There are a lot of things you can do together that will help them work through their grief. You can plant a tree or flowers for the pet that acts as a physical reminder of them. They may want to collect some drawings or photographs in a small scrapbook. You can even make a Christmas ornament together to bring out during the holidays; it makes a great little inexpensive remembrance keepsake!
For young children, you may want to try reading together. There are many books out there that help kids understand death and loss while explaining their feelings are normal. We recommend a book like Saying Goodbye to Lulu by Corinne Demas as a good place to start.
One of the most common ways to cope with the loss of a pet is to find a way to memorialize them in your life. You don’t have to be ready to let go immediately. By creating a legacy for your pet, you’ll be sure to keep their memory alive.
Some might argue that funerals, or even memorials, are solely for humans. That simply isn’t true. Remember that your needs should be your priority in the situation. Sometimes we need these rituals to help us heal from a loss. A funeral or a memorial service might help you come to terms with your pet’s passing more quickly.
If you have children, this might be exactly what they need to help them understand that death is a natural part of life. It can help them – and you – better process the loss.
It’s becoming increasingly popular for pet owners to move away from funerals altogether. Instead, many have their bellowed pet cremated. One of the most popular ways to memorialize your pet is to keep their ashes in an urn in your home. This way, you can keep the pet’s cremains with you even if you move to a new residence. Urns are highly personal items and picking out the perfect one to represent your unique pet can take some time, especially when there are so many options available.
If you’re interested in this option, we recommend taking the time to find your perfect selection. There are a lot of options from a very simple box design to something more extravagant like this marble urn established designed for larger dogs.
Shadowboxes and scrapbooks are hefty projects to complete, requiring a lot of dedicated time and effort. However, that hard work always pays off in the creation of a unique and highly personalized item that you can keep for years. They also provide an opportunity to gather those physical reminders of your pet – collars, tags, favorite items, and photographs – to put together in a format you can share with others as you process your loss.
It’s a great way to work through that grief that will give you a physical reminder to hold onto forever.
Photo engraved jewelry is nothing new. However, we generally consider photos of our families or loved ones as the focus. Photo-engraved pet jewelry has become more popular over the last few years as the availability has increased. You can have your favorite pet photo engraved in metal forever as a pendant, capturing those moments that mattered the most.
These pendants are available in an assortment of different shapes – hearts to bones to rectangles to dog tag styles – and generally come in different metal plating as well as color photo options.
While less traditional than an urn, pet cremation jewelry offers a smaller, more personal alternative. Unlike urns or larger memorial displays, jewelry is mobile and subtle. It is a way to honor your loved one by crafting something that contains a small piece of them.
The interior of pet cremation pendants is accessed by removing a threaded screw and a small amount of pet ashes can be added. You can also add a small amount of pet fur, a small piece of a favorite toy or even some ground from where your pet like to play in the yard or from where they were laid to rest.
You don’t always have to wear the piece, either. You can display it or keep it with other keepsakes.
The very short answer is this: there is no standard right or wrong time to bring home a new pet. That probably isn’t what you wanted to hear- but it’s true. There was a time when people thought that the answer should be “immediately.” Then others begin their journey of grief with an answer of “never.” Both are valid because no two experiences are the same.
This is a very personal decision because everyone experiences grief differently. The perfect time for you may be a terrible time for someone else to even consider getting a new pet. The best advice we can offer is just to consider it when it feels right.
You’ve got to give yourself time to grieve the death of your pet before you bring another animal into the household. Do not rush this process. Don’t force yourself to consider a new pet just because someone else recommends it or you feel obligated to do so. And never consider a new pet as a replacement for the one you’ve lost. They will never erase the pet you’ve lost in your memories.
If you attempt to replace a pet to help you heal, you might find the process delayed even more. Or you might find yourself unable to give as much care and love to a new pet when you aren’t quite ready to welcome a new connection.
Make sure that you have given yourself ample time before starting the process of bringing a new pet into the family. This will ensure an easier transition and your full time and attention being focused on your new member of the family.
Before you can decide if you’re ready to adopt a new pet, you’ll have to look at your entire household. Do you live alone? What about your spouse, parents, roommates, or children? Are they ready for a new pet?
This decision should include everyone in the household; they should all have a say in what comes after the loss of a pet. This isn’t an exception. Your family may not be ready, and it’s important to understand where they all are before you decide.
Children especially may be resistant to another pet if they feel they might be disloyal to the one that is gone. It’s easy to anthropomorphize our pets but this can lead to such thoughts – even in ourselves. Your pet would not want you to be unhappy; they loved you unconditionally. There is no shame in wishing to build new bonds with a new furry companion.
If you are a multiple pet household, there are other factors to consider as well. When we suggest including your entire household in the decision process, that includes any current pets you might have. Animals can grieve, too. While dogs and cats react to grief differently than humans, it doesn’t mean they don’t pick up on the nonverbal cues of the humans around them. Nor does it mean they don’t notice when something is different in a household.
Pets form attachments to one another. You may find that they are lonely in the absence of the pet that passed away. You might consider getting a new pet sooner if it seems the other pets in the household are struggling with the loss of one.
If you do make that decision, be aware that the pets might not get along immediately. You’ll need to introduce them to one another gradually with a lot of supervision.
No two pets will be identical. When you find that you are ready to open your home – and your heart – again, make sure you do so with the willingness to embrace a new animal and give them the love and attention they deserve.
Once you’ve decided it might be time to bring a new pet into your home, that isn’t the end of your journey. You still must make some very important decisions. We’ve added a guide of helpful tips to help you with the process.
Don’t let anyone rush you into this decision, no matter what. Take your time and make sure you feel ready for a new addition. Once you’ve made that decision, it’s time to sit down and plan for your new friend.
It won’t help your feelings of grief and might harder for other family members to accept. Avoid giving them the same nickname, too.
What kind of pet do you want – A cat? Dog? Guinea pigs? Then, ask yourself what qualities do you want in your pet? Different sizes and breeds may have varying dispositions. You want to pick out someone who will fit into your current lifestyle and household. It might delay the process, but it will make you happier and more satisfied with your selection further down the line.
Whether it’s a different type of animal – a cat instead of a dog – or a different breed of the same animal, you may want to branch out and look for a pet that is different from the old one. Different coloration always helps but you might want to look for something with a different disposition or traits to make them stand out.
Your new pet will not be just like your old one, even if they share some similarities. Don’t adopt a new pet expecting them to be just the same. You’ll find yourself disappointed in their actions. Take a moment to enjoy these new quirks and behaviors for your pet, instead! You’ll be much happier in the long run.
Whether you keep or dispose of your last pet’s belongings is up to you. But before you decide on a new pet, you will want to think about what to do with those toys, food containers, or bedding. Some people choose to allow the new pet to use them; some people want to keep them set aside as keepsakes. Others choose to dispose of them entirely. There is no wrong choice for this decision other than what works best for you and your emotional needs.
Losing your best friend is one of the hardest things you’ll ever experience. It doesn’t matter if that friend happens to have fur, scales, or feathers. It may be difficult to make decisions in the aftermath of your loss, but it’s imperative to focus on self-care during the process. While you will always miss your furry companion, it’s critical to remember that even at the darkest moment, things will get better.
When you are ready to introduce a new pet into your household, you’ll know it. Nothing will ever replace your pet, nor should you be pressured into moving too quickly or be pushed into hasty decisions. Make that decision when the time is right. However, there’s no wrong time to consider adding a pet, provided your household is ready for the addition. When you’re ready, a new pet can provide companionship, love, and help you create new, equally important bonds. Give yourself time to grieve first - but don’t discount the idea of bringing home a new friend.
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Updated February 19, 2020 by Frances Kay.