With 67% of U.S. households having a pet, we can say that a majority of us will encounter the joys and wonder a pet can bring to our households and our communities. This means that, unfortunately, a majority of us have to learn how to grieve the loss of a pet and find ways to celebrate their remarkable life when they are no longer with us.
Now more than ever, pets hold a crucial role in our home and society. And if you’re anything like us, a pet may have helped you get through some of the hardest parts of living during a wild time in history.
Pets help us heal.
There are so many benefits of having a pet when things get tough. For depressed people, a pet can give them meaning and a will to live. For anxious people, a pet can help soothe their nervous system and nip an anxiety attack before it happens. And with over 200,000 animals registered as emotional support dogs, the number of pets who offer their owners support is growing and becoming more recognized.
In addition to supporting our mental health, pets can help us regulate our nervous system, get regular exercise, and create a routine... all of which will help us live happier lives.
According to the recent research published in the journal Circulation, dog ownership was associated with a 24-percent reduced risk of death from any cause among the general public, and a 33 percent lower risk of death among heart attack survivors who live alone.
So yes, having a pet can also help us live longer and healthier lives.
Pets represent all that is good.
She was so fantastic, and I feel like she represents something bigger than just her and me, right? I think she represents a bond that we form with other souls. It's the love I have for her and the love she has for me. - Laurelin H.
Organically possessing the traits that so many people wish they had, pets have the ability to love unconditionally and fully forgive. They also have the innate power to live in the moment and just “be.” They love life and their surroundings, as little or as big as they are.
Pets need nothing, except their human (and maybe some treats), to be happy. Their role is to make their loved one happy.
Therefore, when this unconditional love is no longer a part of the everyday, there’s a huge void.
Pets mark the chapters of our life.
Possibly it was the pet who was the support during an illness, a pet who provided the listening ear during a divorce, or the pet was the only source of love for a home-bound person.
There’s no language that’s spoken, except there’s a communication that’s fully understood between pet and pet parent.
When we take on the joys of having a pet, we also take on the responsibility of their full life, which includes the grief that comes with their loss.
Now more than ever, people are flipping the script and remembering just how special their pet is to them, the fond memories and routines they shared, and turning their pain into something beautiful as they approach the next chapter of their life without their remarkable pet.
Why is grieving the loss of a pet so painful?
Whether it’s those that don’t understand the relationship people have with a pet and the human-animal bond, or it’s the age-old statement of “it’s just a dog/cat,” some people will dismiss or minimize the emotions associated with grieving the loss of a beloved pet.
However, it’s big, and it’s real.
Our society is making great strides in giving pet lovers permission to grieve, pay tribute and show their emotions for the loss of these loved ones. People are finding strength in saying it’s more than just a dog, cat, reptile, bird. THIS was love, and I’ve had a loss.
Love is love; loss is loss.
Pet grief is a real thing. It is not something to be diminished just because it was not a human being. Pets are so important to us, and they are such big parts of our lives that when you lose a pet, it truly is like losing a family member. And if you need time to grieve, grieve. - Dani O.
It’s always so heartwarming to hear the stories of older first-time pet owners. Sentiments like “I didn’t know I could love something like this so much.”
It’s true... some people learn how to love through their own pet’s love, granting even more depth and meaning to their lives, all thanks to their furry friends.
ALL pet lovers have the permission to grieve the loss of their beloved pet, celebrate their remarkable life they shared, and reflect on the little things they’ll continue to take with them in their next chapter of life.
What is pet grief and mourning?
Let’s start with some definitions to understand a bit more about loss. Beautifully stated by Dr. Alan Wolfelt, the definition of “grief” is the simple shorthand we use for what is actually a highly complex mixture of thoughts and feelings.
Grief is everything we think and feel inside after someone we love dies or leaves or something we are attached to goes away. In other words, grief is the instinctive human response to loss.
Mourning on the other hand is to express your grief outside of yourself. Mourning is the active version of grieving. And, as Dr. Wolfelt again so eloquently states “he who mourns, mends.”
The feelings are every bit as real, the intense grief, the need to mourn.
Sometimes our heads get in the way of our heart’s desire to mourn by trying to justify the depth of our emotion.
Some people will then want to “rank” their grief, pitting their grief emotions with others who they feel may be “worse,” or more worthy of emotions than the death of an animal.
While this feels like it might be normal and something that a “caring person” would consider is others around them, your grief is your grief and it deserves the care and attention of anyone who is experiencing a loss.
6 Healthy Steps to Mourn the Loss of Your Remarkable Pet
During the period when you’re actively coping with grief and mourning a loss – which is a very difficult time – it may help to consider the following:
1. Acknowledge the reality of their death.
The silence in a home after the death of a pet may seem excruciatingly loud. While animal companions occupy physical space in our life and our home, many times their presence is felt more with our senses.
When that pet is no longer there, the lack of their presence, the silence, becomes piercing. It’s the reality of the “presence of the absence.” Merely being aware of this stark reality will assist in preparing one for the flood of emotions.
In this challenging space is where we must acknowledge the full reality of the loss of your pet, a process that may take weeks or months, but will be done in a time that is right for you.
Be kind to yourself as you prepare for the “new normal” of a life without your beloved pet. Just as it took time to build a relationship with your pet, it will take time to get used to him or her not being there.
2. Move toward the pain of the loss.
The relationship shared with a pet is a special and unique bond, a tie that some might find difficult to understand.
There will be well-meaning friends and family members who will think that one should not mourn for a pet or who will tell a pet lover that one should not grieve for the loss of a pet as “it’s just a cat” or “just a dog.”
This grief is real, and the relationship shared with these special friends needs to be mourned.
*We continue to use the word mourn here, as the grief is certainly felt. We encourage people to do their mourning work for their loss, share their grief and emotions.
So many people have felt shamed when they express their emotions, so they bottle them up inside. Remember, honor this journey, be kind to yourself, and wherever you are is exactly where you should be.
Experiencing these emotional thoughts and feelings about the death of a pet may be one of the most difficult things you experience in life. A healthier grief journey may come from taking your time to work through your feelings rather than avoiding or ignoring them.
3. Celebrate your pet’s remarkable life through the memories.
The little things your pet did that made you smile while they were alive can still make you smile today.
Your memories allow your pets to live on with you. Embracing these memories, both happy and sad, can be a very slow and, at times, painful process that occurs in small steps.
There are an infinite number of ways you can celebrate and honor your remarkable pet. Whether it’s choosing to drink more water, just like your buddy did, or going for a walk like you always used to together, you have the choice to dedicate your decisions to your loved one.
How will you celebrate and honor your remarkable pet? How about on their birthday? On your birthday? Everyday? Having a plan to carry on by celebrating their life can help give a sense of progress and ease the transition.
4. Adjust your self-identity.
Part of your self-identity might come from being a pet owner. Others may also think of you in relation to your pet.
You may be “the guy who always walked the big black dog around the neighborhood” or “the friend whose cat always jumped on laps.” Adjusting to this change is a central need of mourning.
What is your new identity? What is important to you? How will you align with what’s important to you? Let these questions guide you.
5. Search for meaning.
When a pet dies, it’s natural to question the meaning and purpose of a pet in your life and about life in general. During this time in a grief journey, many find themselves questioning their own beliefs regarding pets and the afterlife. Friends, family members, acquaintances, and clergy will also have their own opinions.
Find the answers right for you. Question your personal beliefs and give yourself permission to believe in the mystery of your own thoughts. As you reflect on your time with your beloved pet, remember everything they’ve taught you about patience, unconditional love, and being present, among countless other lessons.
What comes to mind when you think about what your pet has taught you about yourself and the world around you? Know that it is the asking, not the finding of concrete answers, that is important.
6. Seek support from others.
You need the love and support of others because you never "get over" grief. But you do get through it, and it’s easier to navigate when you have the support of others who get it.
Talking or being with other pet owners who have experienced the death of a pet can be one important way to meet this need.
Some people find local grief groups helpful, as they give you a space to talk about your loved one with others who are also going through grief. While others prefer a more personalized grief treatment program or grief therapist.
Give yourself permission to honor that love. Be kind to yourself.
The life we share with our pets is special and unique. Their only role while they are with us is to love us. Therefore, when that love is gone, our heart will be shattered.
Give yourself permission to honor that love. Be kind to yourself.
And, know your life was changed because of that pet, and your heart will never be the same because of your pet's death.
Smile because it was real…the unconditional love as well as the heartbreak. It is all part of the grieving process, which helps your own mental health and to honor the pet's memory.