We often have pets for their whole life, we are their whole world. We share space with them, life transitions, heartbreaks, celebrations, and more and they are there. They can often represent a time in a person’s life, and that when that pet dies, it’s like that version of that person died. When comforting someone who has lost a pet, it might be helpful to remember that this pet companioned them at times when maybe no other human was present. There may have been literally no one else to share silent space with. Think about that. When was the last time a close friend or family member sat with you in complete silence without either one of you feeling awkward or immediately filling that silence?
As a therapist, I’ve seen lots of people begin treatment because of some kind of loss they’ve recently experienced. Grief is so individualized and, when this loss is experienced, can bring up all sorts of unresolved losses in that person’s life. When a parent or a sibling or a friend dies, there are social norms that are often accepted and understood by those in the individual’s life.
Sometimes when a pet dies, not everyone understands. “It was just an animal, what’s the problem?!” is something that often leaves the person feeling dismissed and even more alone. Some people feel safer with their pets than they do with people, so in a way, dismissing their grief in this way can feel very destabilizing and emotionally unsafe.
When someone loses a pet, it’s still a grieving process that follows, of course. But there are some pet-specific things to consider in order to help yourself or someone else going through this experience.
Hearing from someone else who has gone through losing a pet can help to validate the grief you are experiencing. If your grief has been invalidated by your usual supporters, seek out others online or among acquaintances. Ask them to tell you about their pet and their process. Your curiosity will be healing for you both.
Some people find it very helpful to create something in the name of their pet. I personally donate to Best Friends Animal Societyin the name of a friend or family’s recently lost pet as a way to let them know that I’m thinking about them and their pet. Some like to plant a tree, have a headstone made, display the pet’s ashes in the home, and other things that remind them of their love for the animal. If it brings you comfort, do it.
Sometimes we don’t realize how ritualized our daily lives can be when we have pets. Pets feel comforted by their routine, it makes them feel safe. It turns out that it does something for us as well. As you adjust to your new schedule without the feedings, administering medications, and walks, be gentle with yourself if sadness seems to come out of nowhere. There may also be some relief in not having to complete those tasks anymore, and guilt will sometimes creep up. This is totally normal and a part of the grieving process! It can be helpful to replace these routines with new ones like taking a walk, reading a book, or taking a bath. If nothing else, honor (out loud) that at this time of day would be when you would take your dog for a walk, for example.
If your grief is lingering and interfering with your every day life, it can be helpful to reach out to a professional. Not only can we assess for things like depression and anxiety, we can also help you talk through some other experiences that this current loss has “woken up” inside of you that are sometimes other forms of unprocessed grief.
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