Coping With the Loss of a Pet
“We’ve got to mourn to mend.”
“You can’t go around, above, or below grief. You have to go through it.”
(Text below from Coping With The Loss of a Horse By Jeannine Moga, M.A., M.S.W., LICSW)
The bond between humans and animals has inspired myth, philosophy, and magic across cultures for centuries. It can be surprising how deeply we are affected by the of loss of a pet partner. And as many people know, losing a pet is a distinctly different experience than losing any other relationship, human or otherwise.
In February 2006, after months of treating and hoping, watching and waiting, I lost a beloved horse partner. The condition that ultimately took her life was a chronic and insidious one that required constant research, nursing, and crisis management. Those many months of care were both labor- and cash-intensive, requiring me to orbit around her in an effort to meet her every need. So the day my mare died, I left the barn with a feeling so empty it defied description. I was rudderless and drifting without my horse. She had given my days form and routine—she had given me a new understanding of the word “commitment.”
There are many models professional counselors use to make sense of the grieving process, and these models or “stages” of grief can be quite helpful. More important, though, is the realization that grief is highly individual, variable, and illogical. No two people will grieve a loss exactly alike, and many times grief defies both explanation and expectation. Knowing this can be oddly comforting—that you are grieving as you need to, and that somehow, some way, you will find a way through to the other side.
With that said, there are some things to remember if you are stumbling through the loss of a beloved pet:
Grief is a whole-body experience.
It involves all parts of the human system and often shows itself on physical, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual levels. People who are grieving often have bodies that are exhausted and uncooperative, hearts that are broken, and brains that alternate between confusion, numbness, and too much time spent on the “what ifs.” Learning to sit with the many faces of grief is a requirement of working through the loss.
Grief is misunderstood.
Humans fear and avoid death because it is simply too big to wrap our brains around. Many people may offer well-meaning, but ill-timed and off-putting, advice to those who have lost a pet. If this happens to you, thank them kindly for their thoughts and then find support from others who resist the temptation to offer a “quick fix.” Pets are not appliances to be replaced, but loved ones to be mourned and honored.
Grief is isolating.
Many bereaved people feel alone in their grief. It is not unusual to feel isolated by the indifference of people who clearly don’t get it. The antidote to this is found in connecting with people who will listen to you without judgment. Whether you find those people within the pet community, within your family, or through a more formal route (such as a support group or a grief counselor) does not matter. What matters, instead, is the power that comes from telling your story to others who can understand your experience.
Grief has no timetable.
Many mourners frequently note that others expect them to get over their loss in a matter of weeks or months. But there is no timetable for grief. People who are lucky enough to enjoy the trust of a pet have invested tremendous time and energy in building that relationship. As such, they must also spend considerable time and energy adjusting when that pet dies. Do not expect yourself to “get over it.” Loss is not something you get over, but something to which you must adapt.
Grief feels rotten.
Grief is a process that often hits us surprisingly hard. Even for people who have survived many previous experiences with death, it is not uncommon to describe the loss of a deeply bonded pet as significantly more distressing. You may find that you have lost the capacity for finding comfort—your usual calming, self-soothing activities may not work. When all else fails, go back to the basics: hydration, nourishment, rest, and exercise. Support your body so your body can support your grief.
Grief is transformative.
Sometimes, one of the most healing things we can do is to honor grief as the teacher it is. By entering into relationships with pets, we open ourselves up to partnership, challenge, and transformation. When we lose our pets, reflecting on their gifts can enable us to live their legacies. It is not just in loving them, but in losing them, that we are afforded the opportunity to become better humans.
Those who have experienced a deeply satisfying relationship with a pet know the intense pain that comes from having to bid them goodbye. If you are working through a loss yourself, treat yourself kindly and find others who can do the same. If you know of a friend or colleague who is grieving a pet, reach out, even in small ways, to let them know you are available to listen.
The Five Stages of Grief
The stages have evolved since their introduction over 30 years ago. Classifying grief into five stages was never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages. These stages are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a “typical response” to loss as there is no “typical loss”. Our grief is as individual as our lives.
The five stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) are a part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with the one we lost. They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. But they are not stops on some linear timeline in grief. Not everyone goes through all of them or in a prescribed order. Our hope is that with these stages comes the knowledge of grief’s terrain, making us better equipped to cope with life and loss. At times, people in grief will often report more stages. Just remember your grief is an unique as you are.
DENIAL This first stage of grieving helps us to survive the loss. In this stage, the world becomes meaningless and overwhelming. Life makes no sense. We are in a state of shock and denial. We go numb. We wonder how we can go on, if we can go on, why we should go on. We try to find a way to simply get through each day. Denial and shock help us to cope and make survival possible. Denial helps us to pace our feelings of grief. There is a grace in denial. It is nature’s way of letting in only as much as we can handle. As you accept the reality of the loss and start to ask yourself questions, you are unknowingly beginning the healing process. You are becoming stronger, and the denial is beginning to fade. But as you proceed, all the feelings you were denying begin to surface.
ANGER Anger is a necessary stage of the healing process. Be willing to feel your anger, even though it may seem endless. The more you truly feel it, the more it will begin to dissipate and the more you will heal. There are many other emotions under the anger and you will get to them in time, but anger is the emotion we are most used to managing. The truth is that anger has no limits. It can extend not only to your friends, the doctors, your family, yourself and your loved one who died, but also to God. You may ask, “Where is God in this? Underneath anger is pain, your pain. It is natural to feel deserted and abandoned, but we live in a society that fears anger. Anger is strength and it can be an anchor, giving temporary structure to the nothingness of loss. At first grief feels like being lost at sea: no connection to anything. Then you get angry at someone, maybe a person who didn’t attend the funeral, maybe a person who isn’t around, maybe a person who is different now that your loved one has died. Suddenly you have a structure – – your anger toward them. The anger becomes a bridge over the open sea, a connection from you to them. It is something to hold onto; and a connection made from the strength of anger feels better than nothing.We usually know more about suppressing anger than feeling it. The anger is just another indication of the intensity of your love.
BARGAINING Before a loss, it seems like you will do anything if only your loved one would be spared. “Please God, ” you bargain, “I will never be angry at my wife again if you’ll just let her live.” After a loss, bargaining may take the form of a temporary truce. “What if I devote the rest of my life to helping others. Then can I wake up and realize this has all been a bad dream?” We become lost in a maze of “If only…” or “What if…” statements. We want life returned to what is was; we want our loved one restored. We want to go back in time: find the tumor sooner, recognize the illness more quickly, stop the accident from happening…if only, if only, if only. Guilt is often bargaining’s companion. The “if onlys” cause us to find fault in ourselves and what we “think” we could have done differently. We may even bargain with the pain. We will do anything not to feel the pain of this loss. We remain in the past, trying to negotiate our way out of the hurt. People often think of the stages as lasting weeks or months. They forget that the stages are responses to feelings that can last for minutes or hours as we flip in and out of one and then another. We do not enter and leave each individual stage in a linear fashion. We may feel one, then another and back again to the first one.
DEPRESSION After bargaining, our attention moves squarely into the present. Empty feelings present themselves, and grief enters our lives on a deeper level, deeper than we ever imagined. This depressive stage feels as though it will last forever. It’s important to understand that this depression is not a sign of mental illness. It is the appropriate response to a great loss. We withdraw from life, left in a fog of intense sadness, wondering, perhaps, if there is any point in going on alone? Why go on at all? Depression after a loss is too often seen as unnatural: a state to be fixed, something to snap out of. The first question to ask yourself is whether or not the situation you’re in is actually depressing. The loss of a loved one is a very depressing situation, and depression is a normal and appropriate response. To not experience depression after a loved one dies would be unusual. When a loss fully settles in your soul, the realization that your loved one didn’t get better this time and is not coming back is understandably depressing. If grief is a process of healing, then depression is one of the many necessary steps along the way.
ACCEPTANCE Acceptance is often confused with the notion of being “all right” or “OK” with what has happened. This is not the case. Most people don’t ever feel OK or all right about the loss of a loved one. This stage is about accepting the reality that our loved one is physically gone and recognizing that this new reality is the permanent reality. We will never like this reality or make it OK, but eventually we accept it. We learn to live with it. It is the new norm with which we must learn to live. We must try to live now in a world where our loved one is missing. In resisting this new norm, at first many people want to maintain life as it was before a loved one died. In time, through bits and pieces of acceptance, however, we see that we cannot maintain the past intact. It has been forever changed and we must readjust. We must learn to reorganize roles, re-assign them to others or take them on ourselves. Finding acceptance may be just having more good days than bad ones. As we begin to live again and enjoy our life, we often feel that in doing so, we are betraying our loved one. We can never replace what has been lost, but we can make new connections, new meaningful relationships, new inter-dependencies. Instead of denying our feelings, we listen to our needs; we move, we change, we grow, we evolve. We may start to reach out to others and become involved in their lives. We invest in our friendships and in our relationship with ourselves. We begin to live again, but we cannot do so until we have given grief its time.
What does grief feel like? What might I experience?
Physical Effects of Grief:
- Hollowness in the stomach, stomach ache, nausea
- Crying, sobbing, wailing
- Dry mouth, lump in the throat
- Tightness in the chest, shortness of breath
- Fatigue, exhaustion
- Sleep disturbance, restlessness
- Appetite disturbance
- Generalized aches and pains, stiffness
- Over-sensitivity to noise
- Dizziness, fainting
Mental Thoughts of Grief:
- Confusion, denial, sense of unreality, a sense that time is passing very slowly
- Inability to concentrate
- Preoccupation with the pet, a need to reminisce about the pet & talk about the circumstances of the loss
- Desire to rationalize or intellectualize feelings about the loss
- Hallucinations, thinking you see or smell the pet: this is very common and normal
- Thoughts or fantasies about suicide, not accompanied by concrete plans or behaviors (National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-8255)
Emotional Feelings of Grief:
- Guilt, self-doubt, lower self-esteem, feelings of victimization
- Anxiety, giddiness, affect that is inappropriate for the situation (nervous smiles, laughter)
- Loneliness, feelings of hopelessness, helplessness
- Irritability, embarrassment
- Desire to blame others for the loss, resentment
- Overwhelmed, out of control
Social Manifestations of Grief:
- Feeling withdrawn, isolated or alienated
- Difficulty functioning at work
- Reluctance to ask others for help, rejection of others, rejection by others
- Need to find distractions from the intensity of grief (stay busy, over-commit to activities)
Spiritual Aspects of Grief:
(search for an animal chaplain or human hospice chaplain to help you with spiritual questions)
- Bargaining with God in an attempt to prevent loss, feeling angry at God
- Searching for a meaningful interpretation of the loved one’s death
- Questioning whether the soul of a pet exists
- Wondering what happens to loved ones after death
- A need to “finish business” with a purposeful ending or closure to the relationship (funeral, memorial service, good-bye ritual)
Tools to cope:
Pay tribute to your pet over dinner with family and friends. Share stories and memories.
Keep your pet close by saving their collar or a clipping of fur. Place their tags on your keychain.
Make time to be creative by putting a scrapbook together, write a poem, or plant a flower garden or tree.
Help others as they grieve while respecting that everyone grieves differently. Click your state for a list of local pet loss support groups. Develop close relationships with others who have suffered loss. Lean on them. Be there for others who have lost.
Make a donation in your pet’s name
Support animal kindness products and projects
- Focus on small things: take time to enjoy a cup of coffee, pay attention to and live in the moment
- Keep a gratitude journal or list what you are thankful for each day
- Affirmations: repeat encouraging words
- Take time off and give yourself time to grieve. You may not feel like doing anything in the beginning of grief.
- Meet with a counselor who specializes in pet loss grief or call a pet loss hotline to talk about your feelings. Click on your state for a list of pet loss counselors. Click the grief tab for a list of pet loss hotlines.
- Grow love in your life. You can’t ever fill that empty hole in your heart left behind by the loss of a special pet. What you can do is make your heart bigger than the hole. Cover that hole in your heart with love. Grow love. Make your heart bigger than the loss.
- Surround yourself with people who understand and have experienced the depth of the human-animal bond.
Visit this grief healing blog website: http://www.griefhealingblog.com/