LOSS OF A PET
There a few things in life that hurt us more than the death of a loved one. As a society we have to ability to empathize when we see someone in pain over the loss of a human life. People reach out, offer support, give their time and tears, and try to provide space and time for their loved one to grieve the tragedy. There are social norms put in place to help us support our friends or family members.
We start learning these social norms the first moment we experience death. We not only have our family and friends to educate us on how to help someone grieve but Hollywood has an entire library of movies and T.V. shows demonstrating how we should show our empathy and support.
Although, suffering the loss of a loved one is never an easy journey knowing there are others around us to provide emotional support makes it easier. The knowledge that we are not alone during the grieving process helps give us the strength to move forward especially when we are able to take our time getting there.
Given that most people understand and have the ability to empathize with someone crippled by grief I have wondered why the concept of grieving of a pet seems to be such a foreign concept.
When someone loses a spouse, parent, or child people have an instant understanding that life will never be the same. Society is patient knowing that our loved one could be heartbroken for years or longer.
People understand the grieving process attached to the loss of a human being and special programs are even set in place since the feelings associated with loss are a common response to death. So why is it so difficult to understand that those same feelings are attached to the loss of our furry friends?
I have felt the pain of watching someone I care for grieve the loss of a pet and what I observed confuses me. Suffering the loss of a pet is not a new concept and if we haven’t experienced it ourselves we have certainly seen a friend or family member go through it. So why is it so difficult to believe that the pain of losing an animal could be just as severe as the loss of a human life?
We learn social cues from the moment we can understand rational thought. We are taught how to be part of a community and how to be productive within that community. So with all the information we gain from not only those around us but also T.V. and movies why are we so dumb when it comes to the topic of pet grief?
Someone loses a human loved one we can’t do enough. Someone loses a furry loved one and we are deer in headlights trying to figure out what we are supposed to do. Just a thought but how about treating it as a loss no matter what the loved one looks like.
My confusion lies not just with how society responds to the person grieving but also how the person grieves. I have seen people devastated by the loss of a pet and pretend they are fine because they fear how society will view them. They are just as confused on how they are allowed to grieve as their friends and loved ones are in how they are supposed to help them. Why is it so difficult to understand that loss is loss and pain is pain no matter what form it takes?
If you know how to help a loved one overcome the grief of a human life you know how to help them overcome the grief of a furry one. If you experienced the loss of a human loved one and know what helped you survive you know what you need to survive the loss of a furry loved one. Why do we find it so difficult to ask for compassion when we lose a pet? Why do we worry about what others think of us when we grieving our pet?
To understand the grieving process for our furry friends I would like to begin by looking at what our pets really bring to our lives. The times when we believe that our furry family members were considered pets (an animal kept primarily for a person's company or protection) have changed. These days the word pet has a whole new meaning. They bring much more to our lives and are viewed as a family. People have run into burning homes to rescue their pets.
We let our furry family members sleep with us or buy a cozy bed for them, we spend money on better tasting food, toys, medical care, and even pet therapy and acupuncture. We do all of this to make sure our furry family member is happy and healthy. Why do we do this? Because a pet is not a pet it is a loved one, a vital member of the family unit, sometimes the only family or friend we have.
Pets provide something that humans have a difficult time providing at times and that is unconditional love. Pets have the ability to make their humans feel loved and appreciated. They are always happy to see us and they listen to our boring stories (or at least have the ability to pretend). They also have the ability to just know when we need someone to just love us. Have you ever noticed how your pet is in your lap the moment you need them most? You don’t have to ask they are just there, somehow they know you need to snuggle.
Our pets provide a safe place to mess up because they never judge, never criticize, and never betray our secrets. Pets stand by us through every break-up, job change, move, the bad, and the good never asking for anything in return. (Better than a human relationship sometimes). Most people don’t think of pets as pets they are family.
Now that we have reviewed the importance of our furry family member in our lives we can look at what is felt when we lose them.
Our pets bring out the best in us. They are a vital part of the family unit and provide essential emotional support though some of the most heartbreaking moments in our lives. Pets love unconditionally and teach us compassion and loyalty. We often times value our pets above some of the humans in our lives. We need to understand the importance of our pets in our lives in order to understand how to grieve the loss of them.
The grief process for pets is not unlike the process for a human loved one. It begins with shock. It doesn’t matter if the loss occurs suddenly or through illness. The ability to accept the loss is not immediate and a person is unable to feel anything at all. The stage of shock can last moments or years (same as human loss). You might feel as though you are lost in a dream and can’t shake yourself awake. It might feel strange that you are unable to cry or get angry or feel anything at all.
Some people experience seeing their pet, or hearing them and they don’t initially feel that their pet is gone. Eventually the shock wears off and the reality of their furry family member being gone sets in. You will feel the emptiness of the home, the quiet, and pain. The emotions that were lacking during the shock period come rushing in and the pain becomes very real.
During this time the confusion sets in. We know how to grieve a human family member. We know that others understand the fear, pain, sadness, anger, etc. associated with the loss. I have noticed that recovering quickly from the loss of a pet seems to be what is expected by society even though anyone who has lost a pet would say it is a painful process.
Why do we expect a quick recovery from others when most people know how hard it really is? Compassion seems to be lost which is why dealing with the loss of a pet can be so confusing. Dealing with the loss is a very personal matter. There is no right or wrong way to grieve and you need to know that you are allowed to hurt. You are also allowed to express how much you are hurting.
I have noticed that for some reason a rule was set in place that we must grieve the loss of a pet alone. People hide their emotions and work though it rather than let others know how painful the loss really is.
Another reason we tend to hide our emotions when we lose a pet is the fear that no one will understand why we are so upset. We fear the judgment of others for how we handle the loss. One reason why this might occur is the way we are treated during the grieving process. Our friends and family might give us a day or a week to grieve and then the compassion seems to disappear. The expectation to “get over it” becomes very apparent and the grief is done behind closed doors.
This cycle continues because we don’t see the grieving process for a pet. We don’t see that everyone else is doing the same thing. That most people are not getting over it in a week. Since we don’t see this out in the open we assume that something is wrong with us and we will be viewed in a negative way is anyone knew that we grieve our pets the same as we grieve our human loved ones. We don’t like being seen as different .
Let's discuss how to heal from the loss of a pet.
The most important part of the healing process is to be honest about the amount of emotional pain experienced when we lose our pet. It is important to know that the healing process actually increases in duration when you try to push away or ignore the pain. The emotions we attempt to bury never go away they only remain buried until you no longer have the energy to keep them buried. Our negative emotions will always find a way to come back to haunt us. They are only gone when we recognize them, deal with them, and finally let them go.
Dealing with emotional pain is not easy and admitting how painful the loss of a pet is can be very uncomfortable. This is even more true when we feel like no one will understand or offer compassion if we turn to them for help.
The reality is most people actually do understand and will offer compassion if they know their friend or family member needs it.
This brings us to another important component in the healing process. Ask for help. Most people grieve the loss of a pet alone. Most people think they have to. Most people don’t realize that the grieving process is much easier when you have other people helping you through it. Ask someone you trust to help you process the loss. This can come in many forms. You might need someone just to sit with you, prepare a memorial or funeral, talk about it, or you might need someone who has been though it to help you find your way.
Now that you have asked for help you need to communicate your needs. Everyone grieves differently which means everyone needs something different to help him or her grieve. Family and friends care about you and most are willing to do whatever you need them to as long as they know what your needs are.
To be a good communicator (another topic) you first must understand that people can’t read minds. Believing other people “should know” what you need is a crucial mistake in communication. If you know what you need from your friends or family tell them. If you are unsure of what you need let them know you need them but are not sure yet what they can do for you. People understand the value of sitting in silence. Sometimes we just need someone taking up space so we don’t feel so alone.
Once you ask for help and communicate your needs the next step is to allow them to help you. The healing process is personal and there is no time limit on pain. Allow your family and friends to be there during your grief for as long as you need them and you will find that the pain is easier to deal with when you have support.
Remember to be kind to yourself. There is no scientific map regarding grief. Allowing yourself to be supported and understanding you are allowed to be angry, sad, scared, etc. will help the healing process.
Dos and Don’ts of losing a pet
Don’t force yourself to heal. You will get there in time but people make the mistake of trying to rush through grief, which can be harmful. Believing you are supposed to get though it a quickly as possible makes people do things they would never do if they lost a human loved one.
Don’t throw away your pets memory. Don’t go home after losing a pet and get rid of their belongings (toys, bed, food dishes, etc.). You will regret it later once the shock wears off and it will actually cause more pain when you don’t have anything left to hold onto.
Don’t isolate yourself. Taking time to be alone with your pain is ok but remaining alone for a long period of time is unhealthy and won’t help you heal.
Do ask for help. Find people you trust and ask for their love and support. Most people want to be there for you they just don’t know how.
Do communicate your needs. Let your friends and family know how they can support you. Whether it is talking, taking you out, holding your hand, planning a funeral or memorial, there is no right or wrong way to ask for support.
Do find a support group or grief counselor. Talking about your grief is beneficial and seeking others who have been through the pain can help in the healing process.
Do get another pet. I put this last on the list as it is the most difficult to discuss. Losing a pet leaves an empty space. Sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is to let another furry friend into your heart.
People sometimes view this as a negative thing. We discussed how the loss of a pet and the loss of a human loved one are similar this is one component where they are different.
Getting another pet doesn’t mean you are replacing your loved one, doesn’t mean you don’t care, and doesn’t mean you moved on. What it does is gives you something to help heal.
A furry family member will give you unconditional love, fill the emptiness, and give you a reason to heal. It will give you something to focus on instead of the grief. Yes, you will hurt from the loss of your loved one and no it won’t be a magic cure to escape the loss but it will help the healing process and give you something to look forward to.
How to help a friend or family member through the loss of a pet
First, direct them to this informational article.
It is important to understand that just because a friend or family member doesn’t show grief doesn’t mean they are not feeling it. Recognize that losing a loved one is difficult and that includes a furry loved one.
If you know the relationship your friend/family member had with their pet it will help in understanding how to help them grieve. Remember that losing a pet is just as painful as losing a human loved one and that should always be respected.
Sometimes just being available to talk or sit with them is enough. That is not always the case and your friend/family member might need more for you. They might not always tell you they need you. People tend to feel isolated when they lose a pet because they don’t think they are allowed to grieve.
Dos and Don’ts of helping a friend/family member through the loss of a pet.
Do make sure they know you are there for them and ask them what they need from you to help them heal.
Do allow them to grieve for as long as they need and make them feel safe in talking with you about it. Keep in mind healing from the loss of a furry friend is not something that is done in a short amount of time.
Do take their pain seriously. A good rule of thumb is to treat their loss as you would a human loss. The pain feels the same no matter what the form of the loved one.
Do help them find a support group or grief counselor. The loss of a pet is a serious matter and can lead to depression or suicidal thoughts. If you think your friend/family member is in danger of harming himself or herself get them help immediately.
Don’t criticize their requests. If they want you to help prepare a funeral, memorial, set up a scholarship in their pet’s name. Nothing is too strange if it helps the person heal as long as it is not compromising any other person’s health or wellbeing.
Don’t force them to heal. Grief is different for everyone and recovery is as well. Allow them as much time as they need.
Don’t get them another pet. They will be a pet parent again when they are ready. Although, it is a good idea for someone who lost a pet to get another one you can’t be the one to decide when this happens. You can suggest the benefits of allowing another furry friend into their heart but you should never make the decision for them.
Additional Information and support:
Petloss.com (information for support groups memorial)
Petlossathome.com (information for home euthanasia)
PET GRIEF SUPPORT SERVICE online support caaainc.org
Animalhealings.com (information on spiritual and non-conventional healing)
Danielle Putnam is from Colorado received her B.A. from Texas Tech University and M.A. from Pepperdine University both degrees in Psychology. She has owned and operated a private practice for over 10 years and is the author of Pick Your Poison Confidence.
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