The relationship between people and animals has changed in more recent times. “Pets” have become “companion animals”, describing a more mutual relationship. We derive many benefits beyond companionship. Caring for them helps maintain our own health, they play a key role in our daily routines and leisure activities, they act as social lubricants, they stabilize our lives with their constant presence and unconditional devotion, and help us through rough times. Many owners consider their companion animals to be a family member.
The grief felt by the loss of a pet is unique, and can elicit strong feelings that often parallel the grief response to the loss of a human companion. It is natural to feel shock, disbelief, numbness, anger, pain, hurt, sadness, guilt and overwhelming grief.
The loss of a pet may have many more implications other than the loss of companionship. The absence of the pet often creates secondary disruptions such as the loss of enjoyable past times. There may also be “symbolic loss” where the pet represented a last link with special people, or times. If the pet’s death removes those links, old losses are re-grieved in conjunction with current ones.
Things are often made worse by the total lack of understanding from those who believe the loss means nothing. We live in a society where speaking about death is keenly avoided, yet an estimated 75% of owners experience difficulties after pets die.
Euthanasia literally means “good death”, but coming to terms with the loss of a pet may be particularly difficult if you were in the position of having to have them put to sleep. Many people will experience feelings of guilt. You may ask yourself whether you did the right thing, or re-examine what more you could I have done. This is normal. I am sure you will have done all that you could, which is the most we can ever do.
Making that decision shows the enormous amount of love you had for your pet, and your ability to put their well being before your own thoughts of loss. When a pet we love is ill and suffering, there is no other choice but making the decision to have their life ended.
Grieving is a process not an event. The process consists of a number of stages: disbelief, pain, anger, guilt and acceptance.
Immediately after the death of a pet, the owner often feels shock or denial. It may be hard to accept the animal is no longer with us. Our homes may feel very empty, and our days long any lonely.
The middle phases involves emotional pain, and feelings of guilt, anger and depression. This is the time when you need the support of family and friends.
There is often no clear beginning or end to the grieving process. Each person grieves differently. You may get stuck in one phase, or skip others. Healing will take a dissimilar amount of time for each individual.
The last stage of the process is acceptance and recovery. You may still experience sadness, but you will have accepted the reality of the loss of your pet, and can look back with happiness on the many pleasant memories of your time together.
Occasionally, grief can remain unresolved. This is a very real problem and was a major contributory factor in the establishment of the UK Pet Bereavement Support Service.
The death of a pet is very upsetting, and it is important to allow yourself to grieve. Don’t feel embarrassed about crying. It helps when you release these intense emotions. If grief is freely expressed, healing time is greatly reduced. When the expression of grief is inhibited, recovery takes longer.
On the Internet you will also find a number of moving poems. “Rainbow Bridge” is one example. Briefly, this says that dogs go to a place outside the gates to Heaven. Their illnesses are cured, old dogs become young again, and they play together happily, waiting for the arrival of the owner they left behind so that they can enter Heaven together. I’m not sure that I believe in Heaven, but I hope my dog ‘Max’ found his Rainbow Bridge. If you need to cry, find and read this poem.
Try to remember your pet in whichever way helps: talk about them, look at their photos, or write about them. I wrote a letter to my dog. I knew he would never read it, but it helped me to say goodbye. I needed to tell him how proud I had been of him, how much I had enjoyed our time together, and apologise for the occasions when I had been annoyed or didn’t have the time to play.
In a family, there may be differences in the way that people express their grief, and this can create conflict due to a lack of understanding of what others are feeling. It’s very important to talk with family members, and share your feelings.
Don’t rush into any decisions as you may do something you will regret. Tidy away their things if it helps you, but don’t dispose of them. Some people will want to get another pet, but don’t do this too quickly as you need time to come to terms with your loss.
When we lose a person we love, they would ultimately want us to move on with our lives and be as happy as we can. It is the same when we loose a loved pet – they too would want us to move on, be happy, and remember the good times with them.
Although coming to terms with the loss of a loved pet can be devastating, it is also a reflection of the pleasure they brought to us during their life. The pain and sadness will diminish.
If you have a lot of love to give to another pet, that would be a really good thing to do – but when the time is right for you. You pet would want you to love again.