How to deal with the death of a beloved pet
How to deal with the death of a beloved pet.Just over a month after losing her husband, the Queen is now mourning the death of a beloved corgi puppy, Fergus, who was gifted to the monarch while her husband was in hospital in February this year. The Queen has been reported to be “devastated” by the news – a feeling with which anyone who has ever lost a pet will be familiar.
“It is perfectly OK to grieve for the loss of a pet because they’re members of our family,” says Catherine Joyce, team leader of the grief telephone and email service Paws to Listen at the charity Cats Protection. “We can see them every day for years – more than our own family. A lot of people say to us that they feel more grief, or just as much grief, grieving for a pet as they do other members of their family.”
Even though losing a pet can be difficult, this type of bereavement is labelled as ‘disenfranchised grief’, meaning people often don’t understand how the loss of a pet could affect a person so deeply. “The main thing is to understand that it is a valid type of grief,” Joyce says.
This is something that Clare, 43, who lives in Devon with her husband and three children, knows first-hand. She and her family lost their chihuahua, Alfie, who had been with the family for six years, in March this year. He had had heart problems and fluid in his chest and lungs, so she and her husband made the decision to have him put down.
Alfie was, she says, part of the family. “You’ve got this four-legged little furry thing that just dotes on you left, right and centre and you’re it’s absolute everything. You’re the dog’s world, so to then suddenly have to say goodbye was really difficult.”
Clare was not prepared for the grief she would feel. “To be honest, I wanted to die, which is crazy,” she tells me. “Because it’s just a dog, isn’t it? You’re not supposed to feel like that over an animal.”
However, she recognises that losing her pet did have a devastating impact. “The grief was just as raw and hurtful as it would be for losing a human,” she says.
In light of the profound impact that losing a pet can have on your life, we have spoken to the experts to find out how pet owners can best navigate the grieving process, and how to support a friend who is going through a pet bereavement.Ho to get through the grieving process after losing a pet Remember, it’s normal
Regardless of how you feel after a pet passes away, remind yourself your feelings are valid. “Grieving is normal,” says Diane James, head of the pet bereavement service at Blue Cross. “A lot of people find it strange when it relates to an animal, but it’s totally normal.”
She says feelings of guilt are particularly common. Catherine Joyce agrees, but adds that it is a “very personal process” and everyone experiences it differently. Feelings of sadness, anger, guilt, numbness and self-reproach are “completely normal and all a natural part of the process,” Joyce says.
This message was comforting to Clare, who reached out to the support group Living with Pet Bereavement, where she received messages from the group’s founder, Dawn Murray, who made her feel that her feelings, even her “overwhelming sense of not wanting to be here”, are all part of the grieving process. “To know that you weren’t that crazy was a great relief,” Clare says.
Reach out for support
If you are going through a pet bereavement personally, it’s important to talk. “Talking about it, sharing how you feel with someone who understands how important your loss was, how important your cat was to you… That can help people process their grief and to cope,” says Joyce.
She recommends reaching out to a friend or family member – or an impartial resource, such as Paws to Listen if you are grieving the loss of a cat, or the Blue Cross helpline.
Clare found support on the Facebook group Living with Pet Bereavement, as they knew what she was going through. “Sometimes it’s easier to talk to a stranger because you’re not judged on what you’re saying or how you’re feeling,” she says. “Sometimes, I think when you talk to your friends, you worry that they think ‘for god’s sake, Clare, pull yourself together.’”
Having a support system is essential, according to Clare. “If I hadn’t talked to other people I don’t know how I would have got through it,” she says.
Allow yourself to feel the pain
There’s no right or wrong way to grieve – it’s a personal process, and it’s different for each person.
Likewise, there is no typical time frame, so don’t pressure yourself to feel better straightaway. “There’s no normal way to grieve and no set time limit for it either,” Joyce says. “Some people might find their grief might subside after a few weeks or months, but it may last even longer than that. Very intense feelings will eventually pass but I think the point is to be patient and allow yourself to feel that sadness and that pain.”
Ignore friends and family who urge you to sell your pet’s old toys. “Only you will know when you’re ready to move on,” Joyce says.
Memorialize your pet
When you lose someone close to you, you can attend a funeral. However, there is no equivalent for cacts – which is why both Joyce and James recommend you memorialise your pet on your own terms. This could mean planting a bush in the garden, creating a scrapbook, putting up photos of your pet around the house, or compiling a memory box of your favourite pictures, collars and toys.
“I think that can help people go through the process of grieving and that ritual can prove quite helpful for people,” Joyce says.
James agrees that it means “you become able to accept the loss”. It is also a positive way of keeping your pet’s memory alive. “It helps you to remember in the best possible way,” James says, “because what you want are good memories.”
Don’t get a new pet straightaway
After a pet passes away, some owners vow never to have a pet again, and others go to the pet store the very next day. James advises against moving with haste. “For some people, it would become a replacement, and they even call it the same name – that’s not the right thing to do,” she says. “The right thing to do is remember that every pet is individual and has its own personality – it will never be the same as the one you lost, it will be a new one.”
Having a ‘rebound’ pet isn’t good for you and it’s also not fair on the pet. James has heard of families taking back their new pet because it was too different to their former pet. “They have the expectations that it’s going to replace the pet they’ve lost in every way, and obviously it never will,” she says. A new pet must be treated as a new pet in its own right – or it will live in your former pet’s shadow, which isn’t fair to anyone.
Moving on too quickly also halts your grieving process. “Sometimes people become stuck in their grief almost because they haven’t given a chance to mourn the loss,” James says.How to help a friend who is grieving their pet Listen but don’t try to ‘fix’ the issue
The most important thing you can do to support your friend is to listen. Not the type of listening where you interject with your own opinion, or talk about something similar that your husband’s sister-in-law went through three years ago. Just listen. “Be non-judgemental and rather than putting your own thoughts and feelings onto them, let them express their own,” James advises.
“As human beings we tend to work from our own experiences, when grief is different for every single one of us,” she adds. “We need to remember that everyone is unique in what they think and feel.”
Avoid implying how your friend should be feeling, because “everyone handles their grief differently”, Joyce says. She also recommends you avoid cliches like ‘he had a good life’ as these don’t provide comfort to your friend. “They’re so easy to say but all you need to do is just listen, acknowledge their feelings and that it is so hard for them at the moment, and just be there for them.”
Don’t Blame urself
Most importantly, don’t go into problem-solving mode and try to make them feel better. “Listen to them and don’t try to ‘fix’ anything,” Joyce advises. “When someone’s in pain it’s natural to want to fix it and try to make them feel better, but that isn’t always the best thing. Saying things like ‘he had a good life’ or ‘why don’t you get another cat? That will take your mind off it’; they aren’t always helpful things.”
Why are they not helpful things to say? “Because they’re trying to fix what someone’s feeling and really they need to feel it,” Joyce says. If your friend is crying, therefore, don’t say ‘oh don’t cry’ but instead acknowledge that they need to cry and to feel whatever it is that they’re feeling.
Don’t put a time limit on it
It might seem obvious, but don’t rush your friend in their grieving process. “There’s no set time limit for grieving,” Joyce says.
“I’ve heard so many unhelpful things that people have said to our callers – ‘well, it was two months ago, aren’t you over that now?’ It’s just so unhelpful because it can even last years,” Joyce adds. “And really grief experts will say the pain of grief doesn’t really go away completely, it becomes more something you learn to live with on a day-to-day basis.
“It’s still there, but you and your life grow around the grief.”
Notice changes in your friend’s behavior
Dealing with grief can cause a friend to withdraw from social activities. “The loss of a pet can lead to a lack of socialisation,” James says. In particular, the friend might feel they now have no reason to go out, due to the change to their everyday routine (i.e. they no longer need to go out to walk the dog).
If you notice a friend is not socialising as much as they did, or has withdrawn from your friendship group, you can intervene. “Make sure that you try and encourage them to go out – not necessarily [in the] early days,” James says. That could mean going on a walk together and getting some fresh air. It’s also important to make sure they are taking care of themselves and eating, as it can be easy to forget these essentials when going through grief.
Check in regularly
Grief is something that people often shy away from. “As a nation of animal-lovers, the one thing we struggle with is people who are grieving,” James says, “and sometimes we feel it’s in their best interests for us to leave them alone or to not intervene because we think it’s best for them or it makes us more comfortable.”
Yet if a friend is having a hard time, it’s essential you ‘check in’ with them – whether that be sending them a text to see how they are, giving them a call or popping round for a cup of tea. James recommends you “check in right from the start” and then contact your friend regularly “because sometimes people think somebody is coping well or that they’re coping OK because they’re left all alone when really all they need is a quick check in.”
It could be a nice touch to send a sympathy card, depending on the individual and whether they usually respond well to cards. “It does acknowledge to that person how you feel about their loss and it does validate their loss,” James says. Clare was touched that her friends sent cards, flowers and gifts, and felt it showed they were being supportive.
How do you get over the grief of losing a pet?
Accept the fact that the best support for your grief may come from outside your usual circle of friends and family members. Seek out others who have lost pets; those who can appreciate the magnitude of your loss, and may be able to suggest ways of getting through the grieving process.
Why is grieving a pet so hard?
Psychologist Julie Axelrod has pointed out that the loss of a dog is so painful because owners aren’t just losing the pet. It could mean the loss of a source of unconditional love, a primary companion who provides security and comfort, and maybe even a protégé that’s been mentored like a child.
How long does grieving a pet last?
Following a loss of a pet, symptoms of acute grief can last anywhere from one to two months, and on average, grief can persist for a full year.
Can the death of a pet cause PTSD?
The loss of that companion can be devastating and traumatic. Humans develop a lasting attachment with their pets, which breaks at the loss of the pet. Regardless of the manner of death, a pet owner may perceive the death as traumatic and experience distress or exhibit posttraumatic stress symptoms.