For many of us, our pets are part of the family, living alongside us for years. Our feelings for them can be just as strong as for other things we mourn, like relationships, jobs and people. When a pet dies, whether due to illness, old age or accident, it can feel just as heartbreaking and destabilising as losing a human we hold dear.
But, sadly, we aren’t always given the time, space and sympathy to heal from their loss in the way we might be for more traditionally recognised forms of bereavement. This is known as ‘disenfranchised grief’ – when your grief isn’t acknowledged or validated by social norms – and can result in a longer or more difficult grieving process.
Many people haven’t experienced living with a pet, or might not have a very close relationship with their pets, and may not fully understand what you are going through. But losing a beloved pet can be an incredibly difficult experience, and this is nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about. Pets bring many of us joy, love, fun and companionship. They can help us to be social and they provide support when we’re going through tough times. It is absolutely healthy to mourn the loss of the relationship you’ve had with a pet.
Why is losing a pet so painful?
In short: because you are grieving. The grief that follows losing a pet can be surprising, and might feel a lot like losing a human member of the family or loved one. As author Jamie Anderson said: “Grief is just love with nowhere to go.”
Grief is not simply a feeling, it is a range of physical, mental and intellectual experiences. You may struggle to eat or sleep, or experience symptoms such as headaches, nausea or exhaustion. You may also experience emotions such as guilt, sadness, loneliness and yearning. You could also find yourself feeling partly relieved, particularly if your pet was elderly or unwell, or you may focus on the positive memories of your pet and not feel as much sadness as expected.
It’s also possible you’ll find yourself spending a lot of time thinking about your pet, and whether you could have done anything differently to improve their quality of life or prevent their death. You may suddenly spend more time thinking about death and mortality, and you may find it more difficult to concentrate or remember things.
These responses are all completely normal – there is no “right way” to respond to a bereavement.
Processing your grief
By accepting your feelings without adding to your mental burden by judging or punishing yourself, you enable a healthy healing process which will ultimately help you to work through your emotions. If you’re struggling to come to terms with your feelings, it may help to write them in a diary, discuss them with people in your life who will be sympathetic, or reach out to a counsellor or mental health professional and engage with them in a safe space.
It’s worth mentioning that many people are aware of the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance), and might expect to experience them in this sequence. This model was developed by Swiss psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross specifically in reference to terminally ill patients. Kübler-Ross has since noted that these stages are not linear and may not be experienced by all – so while it can be useful to identify and come to terms with your emotional states, you shouldn’t expect to experience them in any particular order, or to occur or end at any particular stage.
Pet loss and vulnerable family members
Losing a pet can be particularly difficult for children, and this may be the first bereavement they have experienced. This is a good opportunity to teach children about grief and bereavement in a healthy and supported way. Telling them that their pet has run away or been given away isn’t helpful – it takes away the opportunity to learn to process grief and can lead to feelings of resentment and mistrust after discovering the truth. It may also prolong the grieving process, as the child may be mourning the loss of their pet whilst still expecting them to return. So while it’s not necessary to give details they might find troubling, try to be as honest as possible and avoid phrases such as ‘gone to sleep’ or ‘gone away/ home’, as this may lead to expectations that the pet will wake up and return, or could lead to children blaming themselves for their pet’s disappearance.
Losing a pet can also be very difficult for older and senior adults, who may have lived alone with the pet as a companion following the loss of other family members or spouses. It’s possible that losing a pet may also remind them of past losses, and prompt thoughts about their own mortality.
If there are members of your family who are likely to be particularly sensitive to this loss or impacted harder than the rest, it could help to spend extra time together during the mourning period. As well as reinforcing your family bonds and honouring the love you all shared for your pet, this could help you to collectively process your grief.
Our responses to grief and bereavement are hugely personal, and depend on a wide range of factors surrounding our attachment needs, upbringing and coping mechanisms. There are, however, steps which are generally considered useful in the immediate, intermediate, and ongoing stages of grief.
In the hours and days after your pet has passed, you may find yourself experiencing a huge range of emotions, as mentioned. The best thing you can do at this stage is to simply allow yourself to feel.
Accepting your emotions
When mourning the loss of a pet, the first step is to accept that this is a mourning process, and will take time to move through healthily. Again, grief is a natural sign that you have loved and cared for something or someone you have now lost, and ultimately, this is a testament to the love and closeness you shared with your pet. Try not to have any expectations of yourself– grief doesn’t follow any particular pattern or sequence, and you may experience the same emotional states multiple times.
Accepting how you feel and acknowledging your pain in healthy ways, such as allowing yourself to cry or feel sad, will help you move through the painful emotions more quickly. Repressing them or telling yourself you are responding irrationally is likely to make the healing process longer and more difficult. Accepting and sitting with difficult feelings can be incredibly hard, and it may feel easier to repress or ignore the feelings, particularly in the beginning when the pain is particularly difficult. However, bottling up your feelings will only make you feel worse in the long run. The lows are likely to feel worse in the beginning and begin to lessen in intensity with time. By sitting with them as much as you can, you are likely to find this process is eased along.
Expressing your emotions
You may find that speaking with others about your experience helps. You could try reaching out to a local or online community of pet owners and sharing your emotions and experiences. Animal welfare charity Blue Cross offer a free and confidential pet bereavement service which you can access by phone, email or webchat. They also host and moderate a pet loss support community on Facebook.
It could also help you to do something creative such as writing or making art which helps you to express how you are feeling. If you are struggling to speak to friends or family about your feelings, speaking with a mental health professional such as a counsellor allows you to express yourself in a compassionate, judgement-free and confidential setting.
Memorialising your pet
When some time has passed, you may find yourself wanting to honour or commemorate your pet. You could hold a ceremony for them, perhaps with a burial of their collar or an item they loved, or taking time out specifically to think or talk about them.
Creating, buying or planting a memorial could also help you feel as though you’ve created a lasting reminder of your beloved pet and give you a physical place to go to or look at when you want to feel near to them.
Getting a new pet
In the longer term, you may be considering getting another pet. It is important not to rush into this or attempt to replace your pet in order to offset the grieving process. It may feel as though a new pet may help you cope better with your loss, but doing this too quickly could delay or complicate your healing process.
How counselling can help with pet loss
Accessing mental health support for bereavement is not a new concept. It’s generally accepted that going to counselling or therapy is a common response to trying to cope with the emotional turmoil of grieving. But the wide range of responses to pet loss, which unfortunately includes statements such as ‘It was just a cat/ dog’ and ‘You can just get another one’, means that it may feel like accessing support for pet loss is an overreaction. Ironically, statements like these often lead to bereaved pet carers feeling as though they cannot express the full extent of their emotions to friends and family.
Counselling provides a compassionate space to explore your grief and find healthy ways to move forward. It can also be very helpful for couples and families, to ensure that there is no misunderstanding or misplaced blame between members who are experiencing the same tragic event in their own individual way.
Grief is an inevitable part of loving
Our pets can play a huge role in our lives, and losing them can be difficult in ways that the people around us, or in our wider network, may not be able to understand or sympathise with. But grief is a natural state which follows the loss of anything we value, and it makes perfect sense for this to include the pets who we love and spend time with every day.
A lack of understanding can feel isolating, and it’s important to be able to speak about your feelings in a non-judgmental and empathetic setting, where you can feel safe to express yourself. Above all, treat yourself kindly and recognise the fact that you have suffered a significant loss.
Talk with a Leone Centre Professional
If you do feel like you need some help and support, our Leone Centre professionals are available 7 days a week. Call us on 020 3930 1007. We can also provide fast track therapy.
We can offer in-person counselling in London appointments at our head office in Fulham and our offices in Kensington, Wimbledon and Belgravia, We also service Victoria, Putney, Chelsea, Knightsbridge, Mayfair, and City of London.
In addition, we offer Online Therapy appointments wherever in the world you are located, should this better fit around your existing commitments or if you are not able to attend an in-person appointment.