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How Do We Cope With Pet Loss?
Losing a beloved pet, whether by euthanasia, natural causes, disease or trauma leaves a massive void in our lives that can sometimes seem impossible to recover from. Pet loss is one of the most difficult things we go through. Our pets are members of the family, and their loss triggers the stages of grief just like losing a human we loved. So how do we cope with pet loss?
One of the main obstacles of dealing with this loss is that so many of us are told that they were “just a pet”. There are expectations laid upon us to “get over it” and while it might be ok to be sad, it’s just not the same as losing a human. But here’s the kicker: it is exactly the same. The loss we feel is just as real. The emotions that follow are just as painful and can be just as debilitating. The danger lies in not allowing ourselves to go through this process, for while it is painful, it is also natural and necessary if we are to eventually heal.
So how do we “get over it”? We don’t. We will always miss them when they are gone, and will always wish they were still with us. Wish we just had more time. But when we allow ourselves to grieve, we allow ourselves to heal and eventually it gets easier. The void is not as large, the pain not as sharp.
What do I do now?
Understand the pain you feel is natural and necessary. Grieving for a loved one is how our minds and hearts cope with loss. Don’t bottle it up or push it away. This is the price we pay for everything our pet did for us while they were here. This is what we owe them for all the love they gave us, all the memories, all the comfort.
Timing is everything. Coping with pet loss doesn’t happen overnight. Grief takes time, and it is different for everyone. Allow yourself the time to go through the stages of grief. The typical stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. We may also feel a wide range of other stages as well: shock, confusion, doubt, guilt, and despair, to name a few. There is no particular order in which someone may feel these emotions, and people may feel them one at a time or several at once. The important thing is to be able to recognize them for what they are: natural stages of a necessary grieving process. We all go through it. If we can remember that, it can help us feel less alone.
Surround yourself with people who understand. There will be people who simply cannot understand what you are going through. They have never had the incredible bond with a pet like you have and therefore have no way to relate to the loss you have suffered. They are the ones who tell you to just “get over it”. Don’t waste your time on these kinds of people – you won’t ever change their minds and trying to do so will take too much of your precious time and energy. Instead, surround yourself with the people who do understand. Friends and family who really know what your pet meant to you and understand the loss you suffered. Look for support groups online or at your local church. There is a whole community of caring, compassionate people who have been where you are and will be willing to support you in your grief. You are truly not alone, and it is important not to seclude yourself during this time.
Know that it’s ok to second guess yourself, but don’t focus on the “what-ifs”. It is also natural to wonder “what if”. What if I had done more diagnostics? What if I had put my pet through that surgery? What if I had only…? Don’t go too far down that rabbit hole. It is not productive and does not lead to healing. Instead, focus on what you know for sure. Your pet is no longer in pain. Your pet is not suffering. Your pet knew how much you loved them and you gave them an incredible life. They were lucky to have you as their family, as lucky as you were to have them in your life.
Create your own memorial. Creating a pet memorial helps ease you into the new reality of them no longer being by your side, and lets you prove to yourself that you will never forget them, and you’ll never stop loving them. When we are grieving, we sometimes worry that if we stop feeling the pain it means we don’t love them anymore. But nothing could be further from the truth. Memorials give us a beautiful way to not only remember them, but also keep them close to us. Choose a unique urn for their ashes. Have their paw print done in clay or ink. There are jewelry pieces that hold a small amount of their ashes. You can even order custom jewelry and decorations that have their ashes infused into them. Some people get tattoos of their pawprints or even their portraits. Others make a shadow box for their dresser top or to put on the wall that holds a picture and their collar. The list of things you can do is never ending.
Continue to take care of yourself and those around you. Unfortunately, while we are focusing on our loss, our responsibilities to ourselves and others don’t stop. It is important to continue your normal routines as much as you possibly can. While these things may no longer feel “normal”, the truth is that doing these things with your pet no longer there is your new normal. When we stop taking care of ourselves, we open ourselves up to sickness, more stress, more depression, and more pain. It will be difficult at first. But just put one foot in front of the other. Remember to eat. Remember to pick the kids up from school. Remember to love yourself and those you care about (including other pets in the house who will also be grieving with you) and the healing will follow.
Don’t be afraid or ashamed to get professional help. Coping with pet loss is as serious as human loss. Sometimes we need a little extra help in coping with our grief. If this is the case, please seek professional help. There is no shame in needing help and asking for help shows strength, not weakness. Remember that none of us can stand alone all the time. It’s ok to lean on someone else when we need to.
What is the goal of grief?
It’s actually simple. It is to allow ourselves to get to the point where we can remember them with fondness and where the sharp pain of coping with our pet loss finally becomes a dull ache. We can accept this new normal without having them physically by our side. It is to get to a place where our emotions are still deep and profound but no longer raw. While we will never stop missing them, we owe it to them to grieve, and then to eventually allow ourselves to heal and be happy again. Maybe that means welcoming a new pet into your life someday, maybe it doesn’t. The point is that our pets spent their entire lives wanting nothing more than to please us and make us happy. It only makes sense that they would want us to be able to be happy again after they are gone.
Written by Dr.Monica Brown and Karen Hope
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