A Guide for the Grief and Mourning of your Pet
You will most certainly experience some grief over the loss of your pet. And hopefully you will mourn too. Grief is the inward often complicated feelings one experiences after a significant loss. Mourning is the outward expression of that loss. Due to unfair social pressures, many people have difficulty mourning. They might try to push their grief down so as to avoid pain or embarrassment. But we would like to give you permission to mourn. Contrary to what others might tell you, it is very natural and normal. And it will help you heal. As you mourn your pet, you will eventually find a space where is peace and healing.
This guide will help you recognize your grief and take you through some of the ways to mourn and heal.
Because we can love, we also mourn
After the death of a pet, you may feel the loss very strongly. You may feel swallowed up by darkness. You may feel sadness, anger, remorse, depression. Other people may not understand your grief and they may tell you you’re overreacting.
If there is one take away from this guide that you remember, let it be this: You feel what you feel. You are entitled to feel everything that you feel. Your feelings are not dictated by someone else. Nor, for that matter, are they often dictated by you. But you should never feel shame for for feelings of love or pain.
Our strong attachment to animals has been going on for centuries
In the US today, 63% of pet owners consider their pet part of the family. But this is not a new phenomenon. In Ancient Egyptian, when a cat died, the entire household would shave off an eyebrows to show they were in mourning—as they did for human relatives. Cats were so revered they were worshiped and often mummified. Outside of Egypt other ancient graves have been found with humans buried next to their dogs.
So you are not alone. People have always mourned the loss of their animal companions.
Pets are a part of our daily lives in subtle and significant ways
Many pets help to comfort us, encourage us and ground us. We interact with them daily and we share a special bond with them. They are happy to see us just as we are happy to see them. They don’t care if we are out of shape or aren’t making enough money. They just love us. Unconditionally. They just do. No wonder their absence comes as a shock. it can feel like your life has been torn apart because in many ways, it has.
Factors that will effect how you mourn
The strength of the bond you share with your pet.
Some people literally depend on their pet for their survival. When a guide dog dies, the implications for the blind person who owns him can be severe. But even if you aren’t in that situation, the death of you pet can rip your heart open and it may feel like you will never heal.
The length of your relationship
Many people who have had a pet for many years take the loss of their pet particularly hard. Similarly the death of a pet who has helped its owner through tough times will a feel very acute pain at the loss of their pet.
How the pet passed away
If your pet lost its life suddenly —such as being in an accident— you will experience an initial state of shock and it may take longer for you to process what has happened and the pain associated with it. If your pet’s death came on slowly, you may have other sorts of pain. Many owners are guilt ridden for putting their pets to sleep too early or too late.
Your communities of support
If you have close family and / or friends who you can talk to, you will find more comfort in dealing with your grief and mourning. Being able to verbalize your pain is an important part of healing. If you don’t have close family or friends, consider finding a community where you will find people who are going through the same pain as you. That understanding helps you feel that you are not alone. Creating a memorial where community can read and send you messages of support is also helpful. Often you can find your community there.
Your individual ways of dealing with grief
Some people are naturally more verbal and open with their feelings. Others tend to be more introverted and will express their pain in quieter ways. Whatever your personality, just be sure to honor and express whatever it is that you feel.
Other obligations in your life
Sometimes the death of a pet comes at a time that is not convenient for healing. Due to employment, family or our own health, we may need to delay the mourning process. That is ok, but within reason. And be aware that just because you may be putting aside your emotions for now you will still need to deal with them if you want to heal.
Types of emotions after the death of a pet
Particularly if your pet died due to an accident, shock will come into play. You may be in complete disbelief the accident happened. You may feel like you’re in a dream and you’re just waiting to wake up. This is all very natural and normal. Shock and disbelief is nature’s way of protecting us emotionally and helping us prepare for the emotions that are to come.
Confusion, distractibility and fatigue
You may have a hard time concentrating and being organized. You may find yourself easily distracted and uninterested in things that once easily held your attention. Many people perform less effectively at their jobs or become forgetful.
If you are experiencing these symptoms, recognize them for what they are and know that is is ok. It is part of the process for healing and they will pass. However, prolonged or extreme cases may need to be dealt with by a professional. Therapy may be the responsible choice if these symptoms become pronounced.
Dreams of searching for your pet
Many people experience dreams or even in waking hours a deep need to search for their pet who has died. Dreams can be an unconscious yearning to find your pet. You might find your pet in your dreams. If your dreams are pleasant, enjoy them and a loving memory. If they are nightmares, seek the ear of someone you trust who will understand.
Physical symptoms may include:
- Loss of appetite and inability to sleep
- Muscle aches and pains
- Shortness of breath
- Digestive problems
- Queasiness, nausea
- Weight loss or gain
- Increased sensitivity to allergens
- Low energy
Your body is communicating to you that it is dealing with a lot of stress. Keep in mind, these symptoms are normal and temporary. But, of course, use wise judgement. If you have prolonged or acute symptoms, seek out a physician for a check up.
Regret and Guilt
Many pet owners experience debilitating guilt when a pet dies. Sometimes it centers around the circumstances of the death itself or it could have to do with the period before the death.
You may wish you could do things over. Maybe there was an unfortunate circumstance around the death of your pet that you think you might have had control over. You may find yourself replaying scenarios in your head of things that could have been done differently.
Imagine you had a friend dealing with the same pain you are experiencing. What advice would you give? Sometimes this can help you to put your feelings in perspective. Regret and guilt usually put undue and unfair weight on you.
Regardless of the nature of it, or whether or not something could or should have been done in the past, it is important to honor these feelings and express them to a good listener.
Sadness and depression
You may experience misunderstanding around sadness or depression. People may say things like “Oh, just get over it.” Or seemingly encouraging words like “You’ll feel better soon.” These comments can often be well intentioned —the other person may indeed want to help you—but in these situations, it’s best if your loved ones could just be a listening ear. If you are experiencing misunderstanding along these lines, it’s best to tell your loved one that you’re not looking for answers, but just someone who can listen and sit with you.
You have a right to feel sadness. And the only way to deal with it is to see it and find the courage to express it. It can be a very scary thing to do, but you must move toward sadness to find health and healing. We have the fear that if we walk toward it, we may never return, but it’s not true. Sadness can be seen as an injury similar to a physical injury in that both of them are very real and both require time and attention. Honor yourself and your feelings. Be honest with yourself in terms of how you feel and be brave enough to experience your emotions. By doing so, you not only show respect for your pet, but for yourself as well.
You may feel relief or release when you pet dies. Particularly if your pet suffered for a long time before their passing. These feelings are also normal and you should not feel any guilt. Feeling a sense of relief doesn’t mean you didn’t love your pet. On the contrary, it shows your sympathy for wanting your pet to be themselves relieved from the pain they were experiencing. You might also count yourself lucky to be among those who were more ready to say goodbye.
In another sense, you will start to feel relief as you mourn and express whatever it is you are feeling to your family and friends around you. This is, of course, part of the healing process. And if you are beginning to experience some of this sort of relief, bravo! You should be very proud of yourself for facing your emotions and dealing with them in a compassionate and caring way. You are doing a great honor to your pet, yourself, and those around you.
A few notes on Euthanasia
If you chose euthanasia for your pet, it may come as a mixed blessing. On the one hand, you were probably given the time to have a proper goodbye. By choosing euthanasia you were hopefully able to find a balance between your own pain and your pets and your pet was able to pass away with you. In a moment where (s)he is comforted by your concern and love.
However, some people are plagued by guilt after having their pet euthanized. You may feel guilt for having had it done too early or too late. You may blame the veterinarian. You may feel responsible for your pet’s death.
Allow yourself to feel any and all complicated emotions. Try to verbalize them and make sense of them even if they don’t make sense to you. The key in working through complicated emotions of any kind is to unravel them. From the outside, they might seem to scary but the more you chip away and figure them out, the more they will lessen. Again, seek the love and companionship of someone who can bear witness to whatever it is you need to say and these convoluted feelings will begin to disappear.
How to express your grief
Many of us are programmed to ignore our emotions. Sometimes we don’t even know what we feel because we have become so accustomed to ignoring them. Now is the time to break these unhealthy patterns as a gift to yourself and your pet.
If you are uncomfortable talking about your pet around your family and friends, ask them to talk about it. It may be eye opening and healing for you to be the listener. And perhaps it will make you feel more ready to express similar sentiments.
It can also be very helpful to turn to other pet lovers who have lost a pet. You can find communities of them online and elsewhere. Other pet owners really understand your pain and are the most likely to sympathize and help you. Your vet may also have some resources to help you find a pet loss support group.
There are other effective ways of self help as well. Writing / journaling your thoughts and feelings is highly effective for most people. Start with just a few sentences to get you started. Talk about memories you have of your pet. What did (s)he like to eat? What were her/his nicknames? What were their funny eccentricities? Sometimes all you need is somewhere to get started and the words will start to flow. Get them out. Don’t hold back. There is nothing to fear or be embarrassed about. You can be the only person to read these writing. This is part of the process of healing.