The Heartache of Losing a Pet
Death is a part of life. It may sound trite, but always rings true.
A cherished pets’ death is a necessary part of the cycle of life and should be accepted as a natural – though painful – process. We know this in our hearts and minds, yet the loss of a pet – either gradually or suddenly – never fails to catch us off guard in many profound ways.
Most companion animals live less than 15 years. This is more than enough time for a pet to enter and live in our hearts. They become a part of the family and occupy a distinct role in our lives. They become an indispensible part of the household and often provide us a continuous source of warmth and positive experiences.
As humans, we have a tendency to project onto our cherished pets our thoughts, emotions, and ideas – we desire see our good qualities reflected in our animals. This attachment creates emotional bonds that can sometimes go beyond those of immediate family members. Our pets are a part of the everyday fabric of our lives in a way that few human relationships are. When you lose your trusted companion and this bond is broken, something internally changes – sometimes forever.
GRIEVING THE LOSS OF A PET
Whether you’ve lost a pet by accident, illness or old age, the grieving process lacks a clear timeline and has no emotional boundaries. Many factors can be attributed to the disparity:
- Your age and personality
- Your pet’s age and personality
- The circumstances surrounding your pet’s death
- The relationship between you and your animal.
The pet parents most emotionally affected by loss tend to be those who live alone or people who lose a service dog – a dog that played a vital role in their daily tasks. The grieving process may take longer because their trusted companion played such an important role in their lives.
Losing a pet changes our daily routines, causing effects that go beyond the loss of the actual animal. This can leave significant voids in our life that need to be filled.
Pet parenting creates responsibilities and a schedule around which we craft our days. We get exercise by walking our dog, or wake up early each day to feed our cat – the cat will NOT let you forget their feeding regimen! As a result, our days are richer, more fulfilling and productive because of it.
When you pet dies, routines are permanently (temporarily?) disrupted. Companion animals – dogs, cats and horses among others – provide unconditional love, help to ease anxiety and reduce loneliness. They support our emotional wellbeing, instill purpose and provide meaning. Adding to the emotional pain is the aimless feeling and loss of purpose following a pet’s death.
6 STEPS TO HELP COPE WITH THE LOSS OF A PET
Grief does not necessarily take a predetermined path or reflect five distinct, orderly stages as psychologists generally propose. Everyone reacts differently and on his or her own time.
1. Recognize and accept the reality of your pets’ passing.
Acknowledging your loss may take weeks or months, but must be done in a timeframe that is right for you.
2. Do your best to embrace the pain of the loss.
A “healthier” expression of grief may come from taking the time to work through your feelings. Pushing your grief away or ignoring it may extend the mourning period unnecessarily.
3. Keep the fond memories alive.
Embracing good (and bad) memories can be a slow and uncomfortable process best experienced in small steps. Past photos and memories shared with others can help guide you through.
4. Amending your self-identity.
Your self-identity with others may be wrapped up in being “the gal whose dog was the most well-trained at the off-leash dog park”. Recognizing and adjusting to this change is vital to the grieving process.
5. Quest for meaning.
Taking the time to come to terms with the meaning and purpose of pets in your life is needs to be addressed.
6. Seek support from others.
You need the love and support of others that have been in your position – talking to or being with other pet parents can be one important way to help mend the wounds.
EUTHANASIA AND EOL (END-OF-LIFE) PROCESS
The decision to euthanize can be extremely difficult or, in some cases, a forgone conclusion made easier knowing their pet will meet a peaceful, painless end to their suffering in a controlled environment. If one chooses not to be present during the procedure, we completely understand.
If a client(s) wants to be with their pet during the euthanasia, our compassionate veterinarians will take all the time necessary to go over what to expect:
- Explain the physical process of how the euthanasia is to be performed
- Clarify the importance of the placement of a catheter to ensure a smoother procedure
- Outline the visible effects of any pharmaceutical agents used
- Define the length of time each stage may take
- Note the anticipated restraint that the patient may experience, and
- Describe unavoidable aftereffects.
For many pet owners, the actions surrounding their pet’s end of life are as important – and as meaningful – as the total of all the care provided by our clinic team during the lifetime of that pet. Needless to say, this is a very emotionally charged process for pet parents. And as many times as this procedure has been done at our clinic, euthanasia also takes a heavy, emotional toll on veterinarians and RVT’s alike, as many of the patients were not only loved by their pet parent, but in many instances, the veterinary team itself.
PET LOSS SUPPORT AND RESOURCES
Grief over the loss of a pet may be as strong as when a significant person in our life passes away, but the process of mourning is different.
There are societal mechanisms in place – social, professional and community support – for managing human deaths, but few exist when a pet dies.
We are not only deprived of important support systems when our pet dies, but our own perceptions of our emotional responses likely add another level of distress. Am I overreacting? Is this stress normal?
Fear ands shame keep pet parents from requesting time off from employers to grieve the loss of a pet, lest they be seen as overly sentimental, lacking in maturity or emotionally weak.
Embarrassment by the severity of the heartache we feel may make us hesitate to share our feelings to loved ones, thus prolonging our grief. Add shame to the mix and this also complicates the process of recovery by making it more lengthy and complex than it should be.
Our advice? Find a great listener. In lieu of – or in addition to – finding a great listener there are resources beyond family and friends available to help you during this difficult transition.
This organization hosts monthly meetings in the GTA. There is no charge to attend a meeting, however registration is required.
This is discussion group is private and professionally moderated. There is no cost to post in the forum.
10 Tips to How to Cope with Pet Loss – a thorough and informative webpage devoted to pet loss.
This is a 24/7 hotline for access to a Pet Loss Support Specialist.
Losing a treasured pet can be psychologically devastating. Because one-on-one, emotional attachments are so closely aligned with our pets, others will never fully recognize how painful – and personal – our pet loss is, unless experienced themselves. Sure, we can offer sympathy, thoughts and prayers to help smooth out the pain, but the hurt stacked upon our emotional and physical wellbeing has no defined end point.
Society at large is not prepared to give pet parents the acknowledgement, support and attention they need to guide them through the grieving process, leaving it up to ourselves to identify and address our emotional wounds alone. The more validation we receive from friends, family and veterinary staff, the faster and our psychological recovery will be.