Grieving The Loss Of A Pet

A Natural Response to Loss

Grief is a normal emotional reaction to losing something valuable or meaningful. Pets play many different important roles in people’s lives, and people form deep emotional attachments to their animals. When animals are seriously ill, their primary human caregivers – their owners – often face responsibilities similar to those faced by caregivers of critically ill/dying human patients. Caregivers of seriously ill loved ones universally face uncertainty. Caregiver’s lives are less secure or predictable than they once were because changes in the patient’s condition are not predictable. Caregivers make important decisions the consequences of which are rarely known with certainty. Making plans for life after the loss is difficult because the loss will change caregivers’ lives in some significant but yet unknown ways. Caregivers often feel like they’re losing an important part of their world.

Losing a pet can be devastating, touching every member of the family in their own unique way. It can give rise to many forms of emotional distress. Sadness, anger, loneliness, depression, emptiness, and guilt are feelings pet parents commonly experience before, during and after losing a pet. The same intense feelings can be associated with all types of pet loss, including when a pet has died, run away, was stolen, or when there is a need to find another home for a pet. 

Grieving the death of a pet is normal. It is an expression of love for that pet and of his or her importance in the caregiver’s life. Allowing oneself to experience the feelings of grief and finding ways to mourn the loss are necessary components of the healing process.

Grieving does not begin at the time of death, it begins from the moment of diagnosis that something is seriously wrong, or it may begin even before that as the pet caregiver notices changes in their animal’s appearance or behavior. Long before the actual death, grieving can be very intense as caregivers begin to consider a future that is different from what they had hoped for.

Grief responses are unique and differ from one person to another. It is virtually impossible to predict how any one person will respond to a particular loss, and there is no right or wrong way to grieve. Expressions of grief vary in different groups, societies, and cultures.

The Process of Grieving

The experience of grieving was originally described in terms of stages.  Recognizing the different stages of grief can help the grief stricken person to understand that his or her experiences and emotions are normal, and to minimize the overwhelming impact of experiencing many new and intense emotions. 

The stages of grief, however, can be experienced in any order. The experience of grief often feels more like an emotional roller coaster than an orderly progression of steps – “three steps forward, two steps back.”

More recently, grief has been described as the combination of emotional and cognitive responses by individuals when adjusting to loss:

Cognitive mechanisms are responses that manifest as thoughts or ideas. They include:

  1. Disbelief or denial: This response limits one’s awareness to the reality of what has happened until one can better tolerate the intense pain. The predominant feeling is numbness, and withdrawal is a common behavior.
  2. Disorganization and dependence: The grieving person may feel confused or out of touch with the ordinary proceedings of life. They may at times be focused solely on the present. They may become demanding, asking others to do things they normally can do themselves, to allow caring for themselves to increase.  
  3. Rationalization: An attempt to master the loss by gathering a great deal of knowledge and information, analyzing in detail the situations leading to the loss, or planning in detail what will happen after the loss. Rationalization allows one to become an “observer” of the situation and may give the caregiver a greater sense of control.

Emotional responses are means for the individual to express emotions and feelings associated with the loss.

  1. Sadness and loneliness are the most painful emotional responses to loss. Feelings of depression, isolation, and self-pity are commonly experienced when facing the loss of a loved one. 
  2. Anger and resentment are common emotions of bereaved individuals. They reflect frustration the source of which cannot be removed. The person feels trapped and helpless. Anger may be directed at a family member, the hospital, a doctor or others involved in the loss. Unexpressed anger may be turned inward and result in silent bitterness, indifference, apathy, aggression, and ultimately, depression.
  3. Guilt feelings are frequently a part of the grief process. These feelings become focused as the individual searches for the cause of the loss thinking thoughts like: “What did I do wrong?” “If only I hadn’t done this” or “If only I would have done that.” It is normal to feel guilty and to want another chance to erase neglect or failure.
  4. Fear and anxiety are commonly experienced during bereavement. Accepting changes and starting over with new relationships can be scary. The greater the loss, the greater the change required, the greater the anxiety and fear.  
  5. Shame occurs when a person is in a situation that is incompatible with the image that one wishes others to have. Shame, guilt, anger and regret often intertwine and overlap. A caregiver who attended to his or her own needs at any time may believe that this reveals an intrinsic weakness or unworthiness. 
  6. Relief and recovery: Feelings of relief are often difficult to admit and acknowledge openly. Relief is a normal human response to the ceasing of fear, worry, and/or suffering. A feeling of relief does not imply any criticism for the lost relationship. Feelings of relief may signal recovery. As the individual adapts and as hope softens the intense feelings of loss, a new life begins.

As they adjust to loss, people vacillate back and forth between being “loss oriented” and “healing oriented.” One’s senses of smell, touch, taste, sight and sound provide reminders of the loss, pulling one back from “adjusting” to “re-experiencing” the absence; as a result, feelings of yearning and sadness temporarily return. Over time, these back and forth emotional oscillations become less frequent. Eventually, the very memories that evoked tears and pain become a source of comfort and cherished memories. 

A continued bond with the deceased is important for a healthy adjustment to a loss. Recognizing we are forever changed as a result of having had the beloved pet in our lives, bereaved individuals discover ways to maintain the relationship with the pet we had lost, transforming it from a physical one to one that is symbolic and internal. Rather than thinking of the loss as a process of severing ties with someone we love, grieving can be seen as a transition from loving in presence to loving in absence.