The English novelist George Eliot said it best about pets when she wrote, “Animals are such agreeable friends. They ask no questions and pass no criticisms.” Perhaps that is why some pet owners feel closer to their animals than even other members of their family.
It is no wonder, then, that people experience intense grief at the loss of a pet and that it can even rival the same levels as the death of a human friend or family member. Rest assured, that somber feeling following a loss is completely normal. What sometimes can make it harder to cope with the death of an animal in a pet and owner relationship is the impossibility of being able to talk about the situation if the pet is aging or ailing.
In human interaction, such a discussion may be able to alleviate some of the questions people face. Animals don’t understand the process of dying as much. With humans, conversations can create some closure for loved ones. But depending on the type of death the animal experiences, there may be no sense of resolution for a pet owner because there is no opportunity for communication.
There are several ways that pet owners can help themselves, and others, move forward after a loss. Here are 7 tips to cope with the loss of a pet.
1. Maintain a normal routine
Sometimes pet owners are used to a schedule that was based on their animal's needs. Waking up to walk the dog in the morning was not only a way to keep the pet healthy but it also helped boost the owner's activity level.
Be sure to stay active so physical health does not become a concern on top of emotional strain.
2. Consider holding a farewell ceremony
A farewell ceremony doesn’t need to be as elaborate as a human funeral typically is, but having a dedicated time set aside to remember your pet and say goodbye can be very therapeutic and help move you closer to closure. Deciding how to dispose of your pet's remains is a personal choice. Some people choose to bury their pet nearby where it can be visited on a regular basis. This might not an option for everyone so cremation and keeping or releasing the pet's ashes might also help. Still others have gone to the extreme and decided to take the remains to a taxidermist to preserve the pet.
3. Keep photos or videos
Photos, scrapbooks, home videos, collages and other forms preserving memories can be a good way to remember the fondest times owners have shared with their pets. Whether it is a visual reminder or just a journal or even as simple as a poem, having something concrete that you can revisit time after time can help you remember your animal.
4. Understand the grief of others
What might be easy for one person to move beyond can seem like an insurmountable obstacle for another. Seniors, especially, may have had a long relationship with a pet that may have been more significant because they have already lost a lot of people in their lives. The loss of a pet can trigger a response in them to revisit some of the pain of the loss of human relationships as well. With a child, the best thing to do is to be honest with them as much as possible about the death of the pet. Assure them that this pet is no longer in any pain and although they’re gone, they will always be alive in their memories. Having a memorial service is even more important for kids than adults -- even if it's just for a pet like a fish or hamster -- it's just as important to acknowledge the significance of the animal’s life.
5. Understand the grief of other pets in the household
For families with multiple pets in the household, the owners are not the only ones who suffer when an animal dies. The pets themselves have their own unique relationship in playing with each other or just serving as companions. Owners must take that in consideration to give the remaining pets a little more love and attention to help fill the void that was left without their animal friend.
6. Finding a replacement pet
Depending on the circumstances surrounding the death of the pet, jumping in and trying to find a replacement as a distraction is not a good idea and can actually make the grieving process worse. If the death of a pet is sudden and unexpected, it is important for owners to take time and fully evaluate when might be a good time to find another pet. However, if the pet has been ailing or aging for some time, owners may have already begun the grieving process earlier, and can plan to find a new pet sooner than expected.
7. Find a support group
If the grief becomes too much to handle alone, surrounding yourself with others experiencing similar feelings can be beneficial. Support groups are available in some location for those who need it. Pet owners will often feel the same five stages of grief associated with human loss including denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Perhaps they feel guilty because they didn’t do enough to save them or second guessing themselves on deciding if euthanasia was the best option.
Sometimes people will look at you and try to make you think you shouldn’t be experiencing as much pain as you are at the loss of a pet. But grief over the death of a pet really depends on where you are in your life. People have different reactions to grief and different expectations of death and dying. This naturally creates varied responses to death of human figures or pet figures.
Rhondda Waddell is the Professor and Director of the Center for Values, Service and Leadership at Saint Leo University in Saint Leo, Florida.