With a pet? Not so much.
That means your pain may be compounded by embarrassment over the depth — or even the existence — of your sense of loss. “Get over it,” some may suggest. “It’s just an animal.”
Pity their ignorance. Your pet isn’t “just” anything. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Consider that, during the time you spent with your pet — possibly more time than you spent with any other family member — your clothing choices weren’t criticized and your hold over the remote control was uncontested (unless we’re talking about a Labrador retriever, in which case there was always the possibility of his trying to eat it).
Your pet’s ability to make you laugh? It probably far exceeded that of even your most amusing family member. And it was never mean laughter, the kind you feel bad about afterward. Pets don’t care whether you’re laughing with them or at them, especially if liver treats are involved.
Why wouldn’t you mourn the loss of such a satisfying, emotionally uncomplicated relationship?
So it’s not a question of whether to grieve, but how best to work your way through it. And that’s a very individual decision. So tailor these rough guidelines to your circumstances and personality.
Look to your beliefs
Most religions, past and present, recognize the importance of domestic animals. The Egyptians put cats in their tombs; members of an ancient Mexican society in the Colima area were sent off to the afterlife with representations of chubby pups (it’s not entirely clear if they were kept as pets, enjoyed for dinner or — very likely — a combination thereof, but they were definitely beloved).
And of course there’s St. Francis of Assissi.
Although not part of a conventional religious tradition, the pet afterlife detailed in the story of the Rainbow Bridge provides solace to many. Its origin is disputed — similar stories occur in Norse and Chumash Indian lore — but the recent popularized version derives from a prose poem published by both Paul C. Dahm and William Britton under the name “The Legend of the Rainbow Bridge” (here’s Britton’s version).
Nix the guilt
I am an expert in this area — why do you think I needed to establish this blog as a guilt-free zone? — and so feel confident about dividing feelings of guilt into two main categories:
Guilt over not doing right by your pet
If you are reading this and thereby showing concern, I know for a fact that you did the best you could for your pet. I received a heart-wrenching letter from a reader who questioned whether her dog blamed her at the end for her decision to euthanize; here’s my answer (multiple tissue alert).
Guilt at feeling worse about your pet’s death than about that of a human family member
Your feelings are your feelings; some are healthier than others but they can’t be right or wrong unless you act on them — or announce them. It’s probably not a good idea to bring up the fact that you miss your cat far more than you miss your late aunt Thelma at Thanksgiving dinner, but it’s perfectly okay to think it.
Turn to others (or not)
There are many resources available for those who need grief counseling or just a sympathetic ear. The ASPCA’s Pet Loss Hotline (1-877-474-3310) is among the National Pet Loss Support Hotlines and Resources provided by The Argus Institute. The Association of Pet Loss Bereavement offers a list of support groups and online forums throughout the country.
Consider turning to your social media communities too. I can’t tell you how much support I’ve gotten for various Frankie-related problems from virtual friends on Twitter and, more recently, Facebook.
If you’re not a joiner or generally dislike sharing, consider a personalized dartboard, punching bag, or other inanimate target toward which you can channel your feelings of distress or anger.
I would strongly urge you not to eat or drink too much to suppress the pain, however. You’ll end up overweight and hung over without your pet around to accept you just the way you are.
Ignore the insensitive
At least those that you wish — or need (such as your boss) — to keep in your life in some capacity. If someone tells you you’re grieving too much or too long, resist the urge to respond in kind. It’s extremely tempting to offer an equally insensitive rejoinder, and that can only lead to insult escalation. Just file the remark away with all the other hurtful comments you’ll likely receive, and then haul it out to be mocked by members of your pet grief support group.
Cheek turning apparently works for some people, too, although not for those with whom I tend to socialize.
If you’re certain you won’t need and/or are unlikely ever to encounter these people again, saying very bad words, including a command to attempt the anatomically impossible, is an excellent option.