Losing a pet is a heartbreaking experience. We love our pets and value how they enrich our lives. While the grief can feel overwhelming, there are things you can do to take care of yourself and your family during this difficult time and honor the special role your pet played in your life.
We'd all prefer our pets to live to a ripe old age and pass away peacefully. Unfortunately, it often does not go that way. Many pet parents are faced with the choice of when to say goodbye to their beloved pets through compassionate euthanasia. This decision may be due to an illness, horrific accident, or poor quality of life as our pets age. Look to your veterinarian for help guiding you through this decision.
If there are treatment options available, you'll need to think realistically about the benefits to your pet. For instance, how will treatment impact your pet's life on a daily basis? How much could it extend their life—a few weeks, a month, a year? What will their quality of life be?
Depending on your financial situation, you may also need to mull over the costs of care and how you'll be able to manage them. As you think through all of this, keep in mind the main goal is to maintain a good quality of life for your pet minimizing their pain and suffering.
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As pets age or become ill, it is normal for pet parents to experience anticipatory grief, which is the feeling of loss before it actually occurs. Powerful emotions of pain and sadness arise when we imagine life without our beloved pets. I have personally experienced the dread of "the day" when my family would have to say goodbye to a four-legged family member. It helps to talk with family, friends, and your veterinarian about these feelings.
One of the hardest parts is knowing when to let go. I have had clients list what makes life enjoyable for their pets and track those activities compared to what their pet is experiencing. When their pet is no longer doing the things that define "happy and comfortable," they had an objective way to know it was time to say goodbye.
It can be comforting to know that euthanasia is very humane. It is not painful for your pet, and it is done very quickly. Your veterinarian will sedate your pet and then administer a medication that causes unconsciousness and slowly stops the heart. You can choose to stay with your pet for all or part of the process.
Your veterinarian can also help you make arrangements for your pet, such as cremation or burial. If you want to bury your pet on your property, check local ordinances for any restrictions first.
Five Stages of Grief
The five stages of grief apply to pets as well as people. Knowing them can help you understand how grief can impact you and other family members.
- Denial – Initially, it can be hard to wrap your mind around the fact that your pet is gone. You may experience feelings of numbness, shock, and disbelief.
- Anger – Once the initial shock subsides, you may feel angry at the situation, yourself, other family members, your veterinarian, and even your pet. Being angry can help you work through and release stressful emotions.
- Bargaining – During this stage, you may find yourself focused on how you could have prevented your pet's death. This can bring up a lot of guilty feelings, but you should not blame yourself.
- Depression – When you're feeling depressed, everything can feel bleak, and it can feel like there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Be patient and know these feelings should wane in time.
- Acceptance – In this final stage, you'll start to feel more at peace with the death of your pet. This doesn't mean you'll suddenly feel over your loss, but you'll begin to accept it. If you have a spouse, children, or other family or friends who were close to your pet, keep in mind they'll also be grieving the loss.
Children and the Loss of a Pet
A child’s understanding of the loss of a pet depends on their age and maturity level. For instance, a toddler may realize their pet is gone, but they may not be able to comprehend that gone means forever. They may ask about them over and over again, which can be upsetting as you go through your own feelings of grief. Be patient and gently remind them that their pet has passed away. Young children tend to blame themselves for things out of their control, so it can be helpful to reassure them it has nothing to do with anything they may have done.
After our dog Bubba passed away, my daughter Elizabeth produced a video to help other children deal with the loss of a pet. Watch it on her website: childpetloss.com.
Children who are a little older may also think death is temporary and expect their pet to return. Additionally, they may worry about dying in general. If their pet has left them, will you leave them too? If your child is feeling frightened about losing you or other family members, let them know you understand their feelings and that they don't need to be afraid.
One of the best things you can do with your children after the loss of a pet is to keep the lines of communication open. Make sure they know they can come to you anytime they need a big hug or have questions about what happened to their pet. If you're having trouble finding the right words to comfort them or answer their questions, you may want to look for books on the topic that you can read together.
8 Tips for Dealing with Grief
Everyone grieves in their own way, but there are some things that can help you through it.
1. Set aside time to grieve.
It can be easy to get swept away with work or family responsibilities, but it's important to take time to connect with your emotions. You may want to schedule a half hour to sit quietly or take a long walk where you can safely let your feelings come up. Some people also find journaling or practicing meditation can be helpful tools when they're grieving.
2. Be open to your emotions.
It's normal to want to avoid difficult emotions such as sadness, anger, and guilt. But pushing them away will only cause you more pain in the long run. Acknowledging, accepting, and releasing them will help you move forward in a healthy way.
3. Take care of yourself.
Although you may not feel hungry or like you'll be able to get to sleep, it's important to focus on self-care, such as eating a healthy diet and getting enough rest. Letting yourself get run down physically can make you feel worse emotionally.
4. Memorialize your pet.
Doing something to remember your pet can be therapeutic. There are lots of ways you can do this. For instance, invite friends and family to participate in a service for your pet, plant a tree in your pet's memory, create a shadowbox with their ID tags or favorite toys, put together a photo album of special memories, or write a poem about them.
5. Seek support when you need it.
It can be helpful to speak with family or friends, especially if they have gone through the experience of losing a pet. You also shouldn't hesitate to speak to your doctor or a therapist if you feel like your grief is overwhelming. In many areas, there are pet loss support groups. Ask your veterinarian for a referral.
6. Pay attention to your other pets.
If you have other pets, they're probably feeling the loss too. Try to keep their routines as normal as possible, for instance, feeding and walking them at the usual times. And, of course, shower them with a little extra love and attention, which can be good for both of you.
7. Don't throw everything away.
Your first instinct may be to toss out your pet's belongings, such as toys, leashes, and ID tags. It might be better to put these items aside at least for a while, so you don’t regret getting rid of them later. You may also want to donate certain items like food or supplies you no longer need to your local shelter. It can feel comforting to know they’ll be put to good use.
8. Think carefully before getting a new pet.
It can be tempting to rush out and adopt a new cat or dog right away, but please take some time to deal with your grief first. Getting a new pet is a big decision, and you'll want to make it for the right reasons. A new pet may be fun and distracting, but they won't be able to fill the void left by the loss of your pet.
Most of all, be patient with yourself and remember it does get better as time goes on. It’s so difficult to lose a pet because they mean so very much to us.
The information presented in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute or substitute for the advice of your veterinarian.