What You Might Experience
Your loss is significant and it makes sense that you will be sad when you think about your pet. Allow yourself to experience the pain of your loss. Many people attempt to hold their tears in because they feel that if they start crying they will not be able to stop, but they do stop. Crying stimulates the release of endorphins which are our body’s natural healing agents. Hiding our emotions or keeping the tears inside can deplete us of energy which, during the grieving process, we cannot afford to lose.
Feelings Of Aloneness
You may find yourself thinking that no-one you know understands what you are going through, and the fact is that no-one other than yourself knows exactly what feelings you had for your pet. Friends or coworkers may say things like “he was only a dog” or “you can get another horse.” You might receive advice such as “just go to the shelter and pick out another cat. So many kitties need homes.” These comments usually are expressed out of concern but often those who speak these words have not had the wonderful experience of being closely bonded with an animal. Also, some people just do not know what to say to someone who has experienced a significant loss, and not knowing how hurtful clichés can be, they say anything to fill the silence. Although your bond with your pet is unique and special, there are many other people who also love their animals very deeply, and have lost those companions. If possible, seek out these people and share your experience with them. Join a pet loss or bereavement support group. Call your local Humane Society or Hospice for information on where to find emotional support. If you have access to the Internet, go to pet loss web sites. If you feel you would like to talk to a professional about your pain, there are several therapists and counselors who specialize in grief. However, when making an appointment, be certain to ask if the counselor or therapist has experience working with people who are grieving the loss of a pet.
Feeling As Though Your Departed Pet is Present
After a companion animal dies, it is not uncommon to have instances of seeing, hearing, or smelling your pet, or feeling as though her spirit is present. You also may catch yourself reaching out to touch your pet, thinking about feeding, watering, or walking your pet, and then realize she is not there. Perhaps you will look of your window to check on your horse or goat, and then suddenly remember that he has died. These experiences can be quite painful as they are blatant reminders of the reality of your pet’s death.
Pet owners often assume total responsibility for their pets’ lives, and therefore, often extend that responsibility to believing they could have controlled or prevented their deaths. You might find yourself wondering “what if I would have” or telling yourself “if only I could have.” You might feel guilty that you didn’t give your pet enough treats or that you gave him too many treats. You might believe that she wouldn’t have died if you would have gotten her to your veterinarian’s office sooner. You could think that you should have known something was seriously wrong, perhaps even before your pet was showing symptoms. If your pet was euthanized, you might feel that you should have waited longer before deciding to have the euthanasia performed or that you should have made that decision sooner. Guilt is a normal response to the death of a pet. We want to make sense out of what has happened and as a result, we frequently blame ourselves. Feelings of guilt should subside as you progress through the grieving process.
You also might feel guilty when you notice that you are making progress in your grieving process. When you begin to notice that you are crying or feeling sad less of the time, when you can laugh and enjoy yourself, or begin to realize that your pet’s illness utilized much of your time and energy, and now you can spend that time doing other things, you might feel as though this means you no longer miss or love your companion animal. However, this is a sign that you are healing from your loss and beginning to reinvest your energy and emotions into living without the physical presence of your companion animal. You are beginning to transform your relationship from an external experience of touching, seeing, smelling, and hearing your pet to an internal process of positive thoughts and memories of your pet. The more you heal from your loss, the less painful thoughts and memories of your departed animal companion will become.
Reliving or Revisioning the Death
Initially, you might find yourself focusing on the events of your pet’s death or revisioning what took place at the time of death. It also might be very difficult for you to talk about what happened or what you saw, as telling the story can cause you to feel as though you are reliving the event. This can last for weeks or even months if you witnessed your pet dying in a traumatic manner, such as being run over by a car, attacked by another animal, or if you accidentally killed your pet. You now have to cope with witnessing what happened as well as dealing with the death of your pet. By replaying the events of the death over and over, your mind is attempting to heal itself by processing and then letting go of the traumatic event. Talking with others who are supportive and understand the bond you had with your pet can help this process along.
Revisiting Prior Losses
Don’t be surprised if the death of your pet brings up memories of other losses you have had in your life. If you have lost other pets or people who were very important to you, you might find yourself thinking so much about the previous losses that it gets confusing to sort out your feelings of sadness. When thinking about losses you have experienced in the past, try to remember what was helpful for you in working through your grief. Those same things also might be helpful now.
Confusion and Inability to Concentrate
Frequently, focusing and concentrating on tasks is very difficult. Because of this, you might forget things you have done or think you did things that you did not do, misplace or lose things, or simply feel that you have no energy to think. It might take you longer than usual to grasp or understand information or to learn new things. These are all typical grief reactions.
Things to Remember
You are an individual and your way of grieving will differ from the way other people grieve. Your own grieving process also will differ in intensity and duration in the losses you experience throughout your lifetime. Following are a few of the many ways that grief can be expressed and healing enhanced:
- Open expression of emotions such as crying, conversations about loss, etc.
- Drawing, writing poetry, or other artistic expressions.
- Internal processing, thinking about the loss, trying to make sense of it, often done during activities such as meditation, exercising, bike riding.
- Dedicating time to animal organizations.
- Committing to make positive changes in your own life.
- Making scrap books or photograph albums of your pet.
Friends or family members may try to convince you to get a new pet before you feel ready. You are the only one who will know if and when it is time for such a commitment. Some people find it helpful to get another pet before the death of their current pet, others find it beneficial shortly after, and others decide to wait weeks, months, or even years. Some people decide not to bring another companion animal into their lives. There is no correct way for everyone to do this and it is important that you follow your heart in this decision. However, you do want to be certain that you can love your new pet for its own personality and characteristics, and that you are not wanting it to be like your pet that has died.
Reactions of Other Pets in the Home
If you have other pets in your home, you might find that they appear to be grieving the loss of the one who died. This is not at all unusual as the loss of a human or animal family member will change the structure and dynamics of the family. Also, pets who have lived together can become just as bonded to each other as we become to them. Therefore, many animals will experience a transitional and readjustment period as a reaction to the missing pet. If your pets are experiencing physical symptoms or behaviors that have you concerned, or if these symptoms last more than a couple of days to a week, a visit to your veterinarian is warranted to rule out illness or disease. Following are some behaviors of surviving pets that have been reported by people.
- Searching behavior.
- Increase or decrease in vocalization.
- Changes in the amount of attention the pet wants.
- Taking on behaviors of the other pet that died even if this never occurred before, such as:
- Sleeping where the other pet slept.
- Playing with toys that belonged to the pet that died.
- Rubbing or rolling in areas where the other pet rubbed or rolled.
- Other unique activities the deceased pet engaged in. Changes in appetite.
- Changes in mood.
- Personality changes such as quiet or shy pets becoming more outgoing or aggressive, or outgoing pets becoming quiet.
What Can You Do To Help Your Pets Through Their Grieving Process
- Observe them closely for changes.
- Do not change their basic routine or the structure of their day any more than is absolutely necessary. For example, feeding, grooming, and sleeping time should remain as close as possible to how it has been in the past. Remember, the changes in your pet’s routine will only add to the confusion.
- Respect your pet’s desire for “hands-on” attention such as holding, cuddling, and petting. Many people report wanting to get closer to remaining pets in the home but find that the pets do not always welcome more attention, especially if it is something they are not used to. Try not push unwanted attention on to them. However, if remaining pets are seeking close attention, then try to find the time to give it.
- Provide more opportunities for exercise and play – this will be good for both of you.
- Try leaving a TV or radio on while you are gone.
- Understand that animals are very good at picking up their human’s mood and some of your pet’s reactions could be a result of your stress and anxiety. Many people find it helpful to not cry or show extreme sadness in front of their pets.
Should You Get Another Animal As A Companion For Your Pet?
This is one of those questions for which you are the best person to answer. You know your pets better than anyone else and are most likely the one who knows best if another pet will make your current pet or pets feel better. Some things you might want to consider when making this decision are:
- Is your pet very social?
- Is your pet used to having other animals around?
- Would another pet help your current pet to get more activity and exercise?
- If your current pet is now an only pet, how much time will it be spending alone if there is not another animal in the house?
- Are you and other family members ready to commit to and reinvest in another pet
Things to Remember
- Some animals will show no signs of grief after the death of another animal in the house.
- Even for pets, grief is an individual process that will affect each one in a different way.
- Your pet’s reaction to the loss should improve as the days/weeks go by. If this does not happen or if anorexia (loss of appetite) occurs, then you should contact your veterinarian because medication or other treatment may be warranted.
This information on pet loss was extracted from multiple sources, including:
- Martha Whitmore Hickman and The University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine
- Midwest Cremation Service