Pets are our loyal companions who are often in our lives for many years. Within the relationship between you and your pet there is no judgement, no political differences or conflicting views to sour the relationship. The Pet human relationship is special and treasured by many of us who are fortunate. Therefore when our pet dies the grief is real and may hit us hard. Many people feel that we shouldn’t spend time grieving for ‘just a dog/cat/rabbit’ but in reality these pets are members of our family and its obvious that the feelings we have for these animals are genuinely deep. Pets are often our sole companion and confidant. They are equally important to us during different stages of our lives. From a child growing up, to part of an expanding family, to a loyal companion in our latter years.
Grief is a unique process, which is described in 5 stages by the Swiss born Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kugler-Ross (On Death and Dying 1969). These stages are not sequential and are often overlapping and revisited during the process. Everyone deals with grief in a unique way and grief when dealing with the loss of a pet can be just the same as when we lose those humans close to us.
Denial is a way of dealing with that horrific first surge of pain. It’s a defence mechanism designed to protect us and slow down the processing of the shock and disbelief. How many times have you heard people who have ‘seen’ their dog laid by the fire or heard them ‘scratching’ at the door? Denial is confusing but also comforting and is fundamental in helping you to revise the depth of feeling you had for your pet and how much they are missed.
Anger can be directed at yourself, the situation and even the pet you have lost. People get angry with themselves for not taking better care, for not securing the gate which allowed their dog to escape and get hit by the car. They want to blame the vet for not doing enough or for the boundless enthusiasm of their dog for continuing to slip their lead. The list is endless and often results in extreme emotional discomfort. Try not to blame but instead work through these thoughts and discuss them with your family or professionals who will help give some perspective.
How many times have you found yourself bargaining with a higher power, yourself or the lost pet? “If only I could have had an extra day”, “I would do anything to be able to take them on that walk again”, “I wish we could cuddle up one more time”. You find yourself desperately making promises to change your behaviour in order to save your pet. This process can be intense and confusing and is again another line of defence against the strong emotions of grief. It can help delay sadness, hurt and confusion. This delay is only temporary though and ultimately nothing we can wish for or barter with will bring them back.
This is the sadness you feel when you accept the finality of the loss. It’s the realisation of the situation, that up to now has been delayed by the bargaining and anger swirling around in your thoughts and feelings. This acknowledgment that you are hurt is the start of your own healing process. Support and patience is required during this stage. People deal with such sadness in different ways. Some need to talk and remember but others need to withdraw into themselves. Do what is right for you and don’t rush things. It takes as long as it takes.
We all know that life is not infinite but when we lose a pet whom we love and who is part of our family, it’s often easy to lose sight of this fact as our emotions take over. This stage isn’t about forgetting and moving on by getting another pet but it’s more about accepting what’s happened is sad, remembering the great times and forgiving life for ending. This is when thinking about your pet there are many more happy smiles than sad tears. In this stage your emotions begin to settle, the physical and psychological symptoms of grief start to fade and you can start functioning normally again.