GRIEVING THE LOSS OF A PET
By Margaret Muns, DVM
Margaret Muns, DVM is the staff veterinarian on the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary.
Grief is the normal response to any important loss in life. It occurs regardless of whether death followed a prolonged illness,
or a sudden accident. Grieving people experience both physical and emotional traumas as they try to adapt to the upheaval
in their lives brought about by the loss.
Psychologists have long recognized that the grief suffered by pet owners after their pet dies is the same as that experienced
after the death of a person. The death of a pet means the loss of a non-judgmental love source. There is no longer anything
for the pet owner to nurture and care for. Furthermore, the owner looses his or her contact with "the natural world."
These feelings can be particularly intense for the elderly, single people and childless couples,( for whom the pet also is
a child substitute).
THE STAGES OF GRIEF
In truth, the process of grief is not a cut and dried process that can be subdivided into strict categories. Rather, the
grief process is a continuum, with each person experiencing it in a different way. Dividing the grief process in to "stages"
helps the grief stricken person to understand that their experiences and emotions are normal. Some people will quickly progress
through all the phases, while others appear to get "stuck" in a particular phase. Briefly, the stages of grief are
1. SHOCK AND DENIAL
The reality of death has not yet been accepted by the bereaved. He or she feels stunned and bewildered-as if everything
The grief stricken person often lashes out at family, friends, themselves, God, the Veterinarian or the world in general.
Bereaved people will also experience feelings of guilt or fear during this stage.
In this stage, the bereaved asks for a deal or reward from either God, the Veterinarian or the Clergy. Comments like "I'll
go to Church every day, if only my pet will come back to me" are common.
Depression occurs as a reaction to the changed way of life created by the loss. The bereaved person feels intensely sad,
hopeless, drained and helpless. The pet is missed and thought about constantly.
Acceptance comes when the changes brought upon the person by the loss are stabilized into a new lifestyle. The depth and
intensity of the mourning process depends on many factors. The age of the owner, circumstances surrounding the death, relationship
of the animal to the owner and to other family members, are all significant. Recently experiencing the death of a significant
person in the owner's life can also affect how the pet's death is handled. Usually, children recover more quickly, while the
elderly take the longest. Sometimes, the death of a pet will finally enable the bereaved to mourn the loss of a person, whose
death had not yet been accepted.
Given time, healing will occur for the bereaved owner. However, there are several things that the grief-stricken owner can
do to help speed up the healing process:
1. Give yourself permission to grieve. Only YOU know what your pet meant to you.
2. Memorialize your pet. This can make the loss seem more real, helps with closure, and allows you to express feelings,
pay tribute and reflect.
3. Get lots of rest, good nutrition and exercise.
4. Surround yourself with people who understand your loss. Let others care for you, and take advantage of support groups
for bereaved pet owners.
5. Learn all you can about the grief process. This helps owners realize that what they are experiencing is normal.
6. Accept the feelings that come with grief. Talk, write, sing, or draw.
7. Indulge yourself in small pleasures.
8. Be patient with yourself. DON'T let society dictate how long mourning should last.
9. Give yourself permission to backslide. It WILL end and your life WILL be normal again. Grief is like waves in the
ocean: at first the waves come in fast and hard, but as time goes on, the waves become less intense and further apart. Don't
be surprised if holidays, smells, sounds, or words trigger a relapse.
10. Don't be afraid to get help from pet loss support groups and/or grief counselors.
Grief is probably the most confusing, frustrating and emotional thing that a person can experience. It is even more so for
pet owners. Society in general does not give bereaved pet owners "permission" to grieve openly. Consequently, pet
owners often feel isolated and alone.
Luckily, more and more resources are becoming available to help the bereaved pet owner realize that they are NOT alone
and that what they are feeling is entirely normal.