Updated November 29, 2020
Going through the grief of losing my beautiful old cat made me understand how we shouldn’t go through this alone. To avoid thinking about the death of our pets is natural but it leaves us terribly unprepared when the moment arrives. I know these discussions will be unwelcome to many and understand if they create feelings of anger or distress, for which you have my sincerest apologies.
Here are my suggestions to help you or others through this terrible time. Remember that everyone’s individual experience of grief is different and not all these will apply to each case. And it will get better.
1. Talk to the right people and ignore the rest
When people are experiencing the grief from the loss of a pet, the hardest thing always seems to be the reactions of others. Less than 50% of Australian households have pets, and sadly even some of these pet owners don’t experience strong emotional attachments. When these people see someone struggling to come to terms with their pet’s death, their attempt to help is either “you should go and get another one” or “it’s only a dog” (or “cat”, “ferret”, “chicken”, “rabbit”, “rat”, etc). They simply don’t ‘get’ that the loss is not physical, it’s emotional.
If you talk to pet lovers, vet workers or grief counsellors, you will be among friends who can understand your pain and offer real support. Talking about it is a great help to most; if you are the person being asked to listen, you should feel very special. Don’t always try to offer solutions; often there simply aren’t any. The main thing is that you are available, understanding and patient. If you know of someone male or female who loses a pet, ask them how they are doing; acknowledge their grief instead of avoiding it.
2. Create a grieving ritual
Humans have known for millennia that the best way to cope with a loved one’s passing is to mark it with a special event. Most people find the same is true for pet loss. Here are some suggestions; tell us some of yours too.
- Create a photo collage of your pets life. Keep it private or send it to those who loved your pet (that includes us if you want- we all love receiving these reminders of a life well-lived)
- Post a remembrance on our Facebook page which will then also share to your friends.
- Find your favourite pictures and get them painted or professionally enlarged and framed.
- Have a burial ceremony with your pet’s remains or ashes. Invite your understanding friends to a memorial get-together
- Plant a memorial bush or tree (next week we’ll talk more about this)
- Write it all down (like I am)
3. Remember the good times, not the bad
The rituals above will help you to relive the days before your pet’s final illness and all the happy times you shared. Too often I hear people talk about their pet by the way they died rather than how they lived. Even if their life was short, it always contained happiness and love. Trying to imagine what your pet would remember of their life can help you see it from their perspective. The grief you feel is a direct result of the love you shared.
4. Let the grief happen without shame
People often feel silly when they express their grief. Everyone feels it differently. Almost everyone cries; most of us keep crying at random times for weeks afterwards. Sleeping badly, or feeling hollowed-out or empty is normal, and it is usually some time before you can be cheerful again. You just seem to be OK and some little remembrance sets it off again. They have been a part of your life in so many ways, and breaking each of these bonds hurts deeply. You may have moments when you forget they are gone, and look for them in their usual chair, call them for dinner, or wonder why they didn’t greet you at the gate. And missing the strangest things, like their hair on your clothes, the smell, or the toy you always trip over at night. Sometimes you even seem to hear them or catch a glimpse of them before you realise it’s just your mind playing tricks.
The grief should improve and the bad times get fewer and fewer with the weeks to come until you can remember your pet without the pain. If this is not happening, please consult a professional grief counsellor. Some of the worst we see is when a pet is the last living link to a departed loved one such as a husband, father or child. Often, these people tell us that losing the pet caused them to grieve again for the person and sometimes worse than the first time. Another situation that makes it far more traumatic is when people lose their pets suddenly, or when they are unable to be there to say goodbye.
5. Don’t feel guilt or blame others
Almost all unexpected deaths could have been prevented or delayed if things had gone differently. It’s too easy to get into ‘what if’ scenarios where you imagine either yourself or others being responsible for what happened. Everyone forgets to latch a gate or put away the poison or check for snakes at some stage, and mostly we get away with it. Sometimes, however, luck is against us. The same goes for illnesses; you may think ‘if only I’d gone to the vet sooner’ but hindsight is easy and we usually don’t think of the worst thing all the time. And who knows if early treatment would have made any difference. No pet is treated perfectly all the time, and no-one is perfect themself.
6. Let children grieve their own way
Although this is a huge generalisation that will be wrong at times, most children up to their teenage years cope remarkably well with pet loss. Before the event, the parents are often most concerned about the effect on the children. Afterwards, adults are the usually the ones suffering the most, and the kids, while certainly experiencing grief, recover well. Often they are terribly upset, and yet in five minutes can be playing as if nothing has happened.
The message is: accept whatever happens. Don’t judge your children harshly if they seem unfazed, or ask for a new pet straight away. Similarly, be prepared for unpredictable manifestations of grief as kids don’t know how they are expected to behave. We have some children’s books which deal with this difficult time that you are welcome to borrow.
Some final advice from experience: kids do better if we tell it to them straight up. They are very literal so avoid euphemisms like ‘gone to a farm’, ‘put to sleep’, ‘lost’ (like we’re using here) or white lies about disappearing or dying at the vet. They need to hear the unvarnished truth, and this will cause some very frank questions which you may find hard to answer. In the long run, they’ll be better off this way, and they’ve also had a valuable lesson about dealing with loss.
7. Don’t think about a new pet until you are ready
I have seen situations where owners have gone out and got a new pet the next day, and others that never recover fully enough from losing a pet to get another. The vast majority of pet owners are between these two poles but everyone has their own path to follow. The best thing to do is not think about it; when the time comes, you will start thinking about it naturally.
Sometimes, the home environment may force the decision; again, let be whatever will be. You may have a child who cries him or herself to sleep each night, or a second animal who was strongly attached to the one lost. In each case, a quick acquisition may be necessary, if not ideal. No-one is trying to replace a pet and a change in sex, breed and colour for the newcomer can make it easier to feel that way.
If you are older or unwell, an animal is a great companion but you may be worried your new pet will outlast you. If you can, make a firm arrangement with a friend or family member who can guarantee continued care, and leave an amount in your will to cover the costs.
I wish I could make this part of having pets go away. It can seem unbearable to lose them at times but the odds are that we will outlive them. Aren’t they lucky to be able to live always in the moment and not dwell on the past or the future. If only we could learn to do the same. I for one feel that after the pain fades, the echoes of their beautiful lives live on.
In memory of The Puss and all the beloved pets we have had the honour to meet. March 1997 to 18 September 2014
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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These articles are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!