Losing a cherished pet can be a devastating and traumatic experience. In order to heal, it’s important to give yourself the space and time to grieve.
My calico cat Murphy was 18 when I lost her. I’d adopted her from a shelter when she was 2. She had given birth to multiple litters of kittens, was malnourished and had fleas, and had no knowledge of soft beds and warm laps. She blossomed into a snuggly lapper who followed me around like a puppy.
She was diagnosed with cancer on a Monday and a week later she was gone.
I was not prepared for the crushing pain and loss I felt. I thought because Murphy was a pet, I would be able to “get over it” in a short amount of time but at times I felt like I was going crazy.
The loss of a pet can impact us just as much as the loss of a family member or friend, causing depression, anxiety, confusion, problems with sleep and eating and the general inability to cope with life.
“It just gob smacks people,” says Connie Starr, MA, who developed the Pet Loss Support Group at the Seattle Animal Shelter in 2006.
“It’s a very uncomplicated, pure relationship we have with our pets, and we also spend more time with them than with anybody else,” says Starr. “We may have our pet for 15-20 years. How many relationships do you have with people for that long?”
Pets are members of the family, providing constant companionship and unconditional love. They’re also an integral part of our daily routine, from evening walks with the dog to early morning wake-up calls from the cat. When the pet dies it causes profound sadness.
Starr says people can be traumatized by having to make the decision about euthanasia.
“It’s bad enough that you’re saying goodbye to your best friend but people can express crushing guilt, they feel like they’re playing God,” she says. “It’s a promise that we make when we get (our pet) that we’re not going to let them suffer. But we’re the ones left behind and we’re the ones that suffer.”
Starr says the grief over the loss of a pet is complicated.
“You feel like people think you are overreacting so you feel alone in your grief,” she says. “People say you can just get another dog … for a lot of people their pet is their child, they fill that spot in our hearts that need to nurture something.”
Starr says the main reason pet loss is so hard is that it’s disenfranchised grief.
“Society doesn’t necessarily recognize or support your loss,” she says. “No one’s bringing over a casserole when your dog dies, so you don’t have the support.”
Starr says it’s important to take active steps to heal, but she doesn’t believe it’s a journey you can travel alone.
“People who think they’re tough think they can overcome anything and they can’t. You need to talk about your loss. You just have to,” she says.
If you don’t grieve properly it will come back.
“You’ll burst into tears at the most inopportune moment,” says Starr. “You have to get the pain out of your body. Talking is a good way, writing, crying, exercising, praying, meditating to get that pain out.”
You need to cry
“Most people cry in their cars, when they’re driving,” says Starr. “Those tears are really necessary. There are a lot of ways to heal from a loss but it has to be active healing, you can’t just sit back and wait for it to happen.”
“Just be gentle and patient with yourself in the process. Don’t try to rush it. Give yourself just 10 minutes in private and cry. Get that release,” she says.
“Be prepared to get smacked upside the head, but it’s OK. It’s also OK to say ‘I had a death in the family’ because you did. A beloved family member just died. You are not expected to just snap out of it and be OK.”
The WSU College of Veterinary Medicine points to three phases of grieving, but people don’t necessarily go through the stages in a specific order or experience all of them.
- Numbness: (also shock, denial, or a sense of unreality). In this first phase, our minds slowly begin to adjust to the new reality that we have lost our pet. Because this is such a difficult time, thinking about or experiencing the grief constantly would be too painful. So, we vacillate between knowing and not knowing, or believing and not believing that the loss has happened and is a reality.
- Disorganization: This is a time of personal chaos, as we try to adjust to the world without our pet. During this phase, we are intensely aware of the reality of the loss but would do almost anything to escape it. Strong emotions and exhaustion permeate this time and we find it difficult to participate in many of our normal activities. The experiences of anger, extreme sadness, depression and despair are all a normal part of grieving. It’s during this time that we slowly understand all the implications of the loss and figure out how to live again.
- Reorganization: (also recovery, reconciliation and acceptance). The grief process slowly progresses and we become aware that the physical signs of grief are fading and that the feelings of disorganization and exhaustion aren’t as profound. Although the pain of the loss remains, the unbearable quality of it begins to lift and hope returns.
Healing takes time
The support group at Seattle Animal Shelter (now virtual due to COVID-19) helps people deal with their grief.
“We’re there to help each of our participants heal,” says Starr. “It’s a wonderful thing to watch them get better.”
Some participants come back as volunteers to help others.
“(The new people) can see that there is light at the end of the tunnel,” says Starr.
Starr says in her experience, for most people it takes from a few weeks to a few months to move through the most intense part of the grieving process.
“People slowly get better and they are not crying every day,” she says.
Many people who come to the group say their pain is so intense they never want to get another pet.
“We tell them that someday you will not feel this way and you will feel the need to get another pet,” she says. But if you’re asking yourself am I ready, you’re not ready. A lot of times your deceased pet will guide you to your new pet. Just be open to it happening.”
Image by Malisa Nicolau