Julie Corbin, Ph.D.
In my previous blog I wrote about the psychological impact of experiencing the disenfranchised nature of pet loss as well as some subtle but important difference between human loss and pet loss. With that said, the grief experienced after the death of a pet is really not much different from that of human loss and there are common themes to both. As cliché’ as it may sound, grief IS a process which takes time to reconcile and is rarely linear with many ebbs and flows forward and back again. It is not about ignoring or moving beyond the grief, but rather learning to adjust and adapt to an environment that no longer includes physical reminders of your beloved pet. Below are tips for helping you to cope with the loss of a beloved pet:
- Acknowledge Your Loss: Many times, bereaved pet owners identify with the messages received from well-meaning friends and family that it was “only” or “just” a dog/cat etc. It does not matter what the loss is, what matters is the nature of your bond and relationship, individual psychological constitution and personal history that shapes your grieving process. No person has the right to minimize your loss and the best thing you can do is give your self permission to acknowledge that the grief is real and you have the right to mourn the loss.
- Address Feelings of Guilt: It is quite possible as a pet owner you needed to make the extremely difficult decision of euthanasia. It is natural to struggle with feelings of guilt at having to make that choice for your beloved pet. When feelings of guilt emerge, try to reframe your thoughts around euthanasia as a final gift of love to spare your beloved pet from suffering the very difficult end stages of the dying process. Reminding yourself that you have lovingly and humanly allowed for a peaceful end to your beloved pet’s suffering may help you cope with feelings of guilt.
- Reach out to Others and be Honest: Find “safe” friends that understand your pain and whom you are comfortable talking to about the loss. Don’t pretend things are okay when clearly things are anything but! Be honest with yourself and others regarding your true feelings. Holding in your true feelings leads to maladaptive ways of coping!
- Consider Joining a Pet Loss Support Group: An in-person or online support group is a great way to openly share and discuss your feelings with others who have lost a beloved companion animal and understand what you are going through.
- Be patient with Yourself: While there are stages commonly experienced after the death of a pet, grieving is very much an individual process. There is no time line to “get over” the loss nor does grieving occur in a linear fashion – you may find yourself going back and forth from one stage to another for quite some time. It is important to respect your own pace and not to feel rushed to work through your sorrow and reconcile your loss. Give yourself permission to deal with your grief for as long as you need to and don’t feel compelled to throw things away (in attempts to throw the pain away) or get rid of reminders. If there are muddy foot prints on the back window or in the car and fur on the floor or their bed and you’re not ready to give them up yet then don’t!
- Journal Therapy: Some people find journaling to be a safe and effective way to process and gain insight into their feelings, especially when it is too difficult to open up and speak about the loss to others.
- Recounting Details: Early on after the loss, you may find that you need to repeat the details of the death over and over. This is okay and very natural as doing so helps to concretize the trauma and brings a sense of reality to the loss. Recite and recount what has been lost as often as you need.
- Coming to Terms: Eventually you will be able to face the reality of “death” squarely in the face by calling it what it is. Challenge yourself to name it, spell it etc. as this helps to bring the reality of the death to the here and now.
- Confront Reminders: Gently confront reminders as opposed to avoiding them. This includes things like people and situations that you associate with your deceased pet, looking at old photos and videos, visiting the grave or viewing the ashes. Visit special places you have gone to together, touch toys, blankets, and other belongings.
- Linking Objects: Create and surround yourself with “linking objects” during the early stages of your loss. These are items of your deceased pet that help to remind you and create a sense of closeness to them. Having these “linking objects” close by can assist in providing a sense of comfort which can be helpful early on after the loss.
- Memorializing: Ritual and ceremony are the most common universal practices to memorialize the death of someone we love, however, many times bereaved pet owners do not think about doing this. Some ideas to commemorate the death of your companion animal are listed below:
- Hold a memorial service at a place special to your beloved pet where a poem, prayer or eulogy can be read.
- Plant a tree, bush, and/or create a memory garden of your beloved pet with a memorial stone.
- Donate money to a cause or charity that has significance to your beloved pet.
- If cremated, sprinkle your pet’s ashes in a special place and/or place in a personalized urn.
- Consider a butterfly and/or balloon release ceremony in their memory.
- Place a candle in the food bowl and light it during feeding times.
- Place an indoor plant in your pet’s water bowl to symbolize your continued love.
- Create a memorial photo album or scrape book.
- Create a “memory” box with items belonging to your beloved pet.
- Have a piece of jewelry made from your pet’s ashes or photo.
- Volunteer at a Shelter to honor your pet’s memory. By helping those in need your pet continues to have a positive impact on the lives of those less fortunate.
- Create key chain from your pet’s tag as this was probably one of the first items you purchased for him or her.
Remember, grief is not a “disorder” or something that needs be “fixed” but rather is a natural outcome of experiencing the loss of someone we love, which of course this includes our pets.
An excerpt from, “Beyond The Horizon: A Remembrance Journal for Healing the Loss of a Pet” (2018), Julianne C. Corbin, Ph.D.