Coping with the loss of a loved family member is always tough, but when that family member is human, no one questions your need to grieve.
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.
Be sure to head over to Petside.com to find posts from the many top pet bloggers participating in the third annual Pet ‘Net Event, devoted to the essential role that pets play in our families.
42 thoughts on “Pet Loss & Grief: Some Coping Tips”
While I’ve never been *devastated* by the loss of a pet, it’s still sad to lose a family member. Regarding others, I’ve never been insensitive to pet death. Twice, I have seen the biggest, toughest guys bawl like little kids when they told me about their dogs passing. In a way, I felt honoured that they trusted me enough to show that kind of emotion without the fear of repercussion. I gave them many hugs and kisses 🙂
I’m sure you were an excellent source of sympathy, Karen!
Surprisingly, yes. I’m not always the hard bitten, cranky broad that I claim to be 😀
I suspected as much!
Thanks for writing such a great post Edie. I have lost 3 phenomenal pets over the years and I suffered the first type of guilt “GUILT OVER NOT DOING RIGHT BY YOUR PET” more than the second. I don’t know why, but in the case of Indy and Aspen, I felt like I hadn’t done enough, even though I had spent a lot of money trying to help them. What I do know is I gave them a quality of life they never had before. Indy was well-loved before she came to our shelter, but with me she got regular walks and runs in the woods. Man did she love those! She had a smile was on her face the whole time! And since I am fairly certain that Aspen was dropped off at our shelter to be euthanized (not adopted), I feel great satisfaction in knowing I gave her a wonderful last year. She was walked every day, went everywhere with me, and was the happiest girl in the world, even at 10 years old. That’s what comforts me most.
I hope others find help in your post. It’s a really good one.
Thanks, Mel. It’s always the people who do the most for their pets — like you — who feel that they haven’t done enough! Silly humans. Pets never have regrets like that; we should learn from them.
What a wonderful post and great advice. Losing a pet is devastating and we should be able to grieve appropriately. Thanks for giving people permission to do so. I’m with Karen. I have seen grown men cry like babies after the loss of a pet. GAWD, these little creatures sure do take over our hearts, don’t they?
Thanks, Caroline, um, Romeo. I’m honored to have a cat visit! Love your Pet ‘Net post too.
Thank you for such an awesome post. We lost two of our Schnauzers this past year. We helped Seymour with the decision at 17, he wasn’t doing well at all, but Muriel died completely unexpectedly from a heart attach at 13. It was very hard on us. They are like our children and many people just can’t understand that connection. As a Realtor I needed some help to cover an open house that next day and very few understood why. Most of them now realize the deep connection that can be established between a pet member of the family and the human.
I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m glad your colleagues have come to see why you were so devastated.
Thank you for tackling such an important topic. Pets are such valued members of our families, but I think people who have never had a pet can think of them as “just a dog” or “just a cat.” Grief is such a personal experience that I would hope others would keep their snarky remarks to themselves… but since that rarely happens, thanks for sharing such useful tips.
Thanks, Maggie. I loved your Pet Net post too (check the CommentLuv option next time if you want readers to be able to go directly there from your comment): http://ohmydogblog.com/2010/11/foster-pet/
Thanks for this post. I’ve only lost one pet in my adult life – Blitzen – a little more than 6 years ago. Thinking of him still brings tears to my eyes. But, even in their passing our pets give us a gift – a reminder to cherish ever day. When I’m feeling sad about Blitz, I look at Ty and Buster and remember that one day they will cross the Rainbow Bridge too. I don’t want to have any regrets when that happens, so until then, I will love them each day with all that I have.
I’m glad that you were able to turn your sorrow into a life lesson, Amy. And I know how much you love Ty and Buster!
As you know, my dog Clooney recently died. Yes, I had to “put her down,” as they say, and it was so difficult. But it was also in a very peaceful setting. And I know she was hurting and suffering. That alone was too much to watch anymore.
And then she reached her limit, when heart failure entered the picture. I knew what needed to be done. And I was okay with it right after.
But it’s been two weeks, and I recently started to wonder if I did do the right thing. I’m pretty sure that’s probably normal as the numbness wears off and you begin to experience the actual loss: no more Clooney barking at the door when I come home; the doggie doo bags that will never go in my pocket on another walk with her; the doggie brush still sitting on the counter, never to be used again; the dogggie toys still scattered all over the house, especially the one she last carried in her mouth that I finally had to toss in the wash with the bedding; her doggie dish I still washed because I couldn’t bear to throw it away; and on and on…
It’s really hard not to miss the companion who shared your life with you for more than a decade. I don’t feel guilty at all about missing her, and believe I’m grieving her pretty normally. I can still sense her presence in certain areas of our home, places where she and I spent time together. And I find that comforting. And I am lucky to have friends who understand. That makes all the difference in the world.
Thanks for this post.
Jackie, thanks so much for this note. I’m so sorry for your loss. It’s hard not to tear up — and I didn’t try! — when reading about how you’re experiencing grief now that your numbness has begun to wear off. I too am glad that you have friends that understand.
I still cry when I think too much about the day we decided to euthanize my childhood dog. It was undboubtedly the right decision, we probably should have made it earlier in fact, but my family never talked about it after. And I was never able to talk about it with anyone else. That’s one of the reasons I think I’ve never gotten over it.
Anyway, thank you for sharing your thoughts on this difficult but inevitable situation. It’s comforting in a way to know that there are countless people out there who understand.
I think things are definitely easier for pet owners these days — there are so many more resources available for us now than there were in the past, and so much more of a virtual (and real) community. We still feel awful about the loss of our pets but at least we know that we’re not crazy to feel that way!
Hi Edie! I lost my Bailey in January, and my experience equals everything you wrote about. I cannot read the Rainbow Bridge poem–it totally devastates me–but that’s OK ’cause I know what it’s about, and I know that Bailey had an easy time trotting across.
Have you heard the orphan pet addition to the Rainbow Bridge story? I’m sure it’s written online somewhere, but here is what I remember of the basic outline:
A dog was crossing the Rainbow Bridge and noticed that there were some pets who were milling about unable to cross. The dog asked the angle on the other side, “Why aren’t those other pets crossing over.” The angle replied, “Those pets were all orphans and did not have a human family who loved them. They are not able to cross the Bridge on their own.” This made the dog very sad.
Suddenly, a person with a very kind face appeared on the other side. All the pets who were gathered around unable to cross were overjoyed–tails started to wag, and there were many toothy grins. They all gathered around the person and crossed over the Bridge in one big group.
The dog was very happy to see the other pets crossing the Bridge, and he asked the angel, “I thought you said they could not cross over?”
And the angel replied, “Ah! That person must have been a volunteer or a worker at a shelter. Shelter and animal rescue folks have a special grace that allows them to bring orphaned pets over with them when they cross the Bridge.”
And now here I sit at my computer with tears streaming down my face. The Rainbow Bridge story does me in every time.
Bev — thank you so much for that orphan pet addition (although of course it made me cry too)! I blogged about my problem with the Rainbow Bridge story, the fact that shelter pets didn’t get to go across: https://willmydoghateme.com/pet-cetera/the-rainbow-bridge-whats-in-it-for-shelter-dogs. I’m so glad the legend was updated!
And I am so sorry for your loss of Bailey.
Oh wow. Bev – you just gave me chills. I had not heard this before, but wow. Powerful. I’ve lost enough of my own pets, but I hope someday I can be one of those who helps an orphan pet cross that bridge. Thank you!
I couldn’t understand why people became so emotional and devastated at the loss of a dog, until I had to put my constant companion or 15 years to sleep. I cried more at the loss of my Sadie, than I did at the passing of my elderly parents. It’s now been 14 years since she left my side and on January 23 it will be a very quiet day in her memory.
At her passing, she blessed me with the ability to now understand why we grieve at their passing.
Thank you for this very needed post, as I ready myself for the eventual separation of my friend Maggie and me, she has arthritis in her spine, no cure. I have decided when the time comes, a Vet will come to my home, we are very fortunate to have a vet who will.
Thanks for sharing this, George. I’m sorry that you’re going to have to face another tough passage soon. I think your choice of the way to deal with it is wise; keeping a pet at home seems much kinder than adding the stress — to both of you! — of driving to the vet.
I did not know about the Mexican society that buried their dead with a statue (or ?) of a cubby pup – that is fascinating! Thanks:) And unlike Karen I was devastated after my first dog died – it was horrible and I’ll never forget it. Luckily the only idiot who dared tell me it was “only” a dog was a fool I was dating – who got dumped. Being shocked and crying are all very normal when losing a beloved member of the family. The only trouble that may come of it is if we stay in that grief and loss too long without help. Which is why I”m glad you mentioned the support group idea:)
Thanks Edie – a very helpful post!
One of these days I’m going to write about the Colima dogs — yes, ceramic statuettes; knockoffs are sold as souvenirs all around the state of Colima, near Manzanillo. I’ve been fascinated with them for a long time.
I can’t imagine *not* being devastated by the loss of a first dog and you made the right decision dumping the BF — lack of sympathy is a sign of flawed character for sure!
Thank you Edie, and thank you George. I had never had a pet in my life until my life-changer Archie came along. He’s almost 17, and although has beat cancer, is not long for this world. I never understood anything about unconditional love (on my part, not his) until I met him. I appreciate so so much hearing all of these true responses and experiences, but especially George’s, as they so parallel those that I’ve had so far. And I know I will mourn Archie for 14 years and more, and am glad to know that love goes on.
However, Edie, I had planned to treat my impending grief with too much wine and food. Now you’ve advised against that! I’m so let down.
Yes, I am awed and moved by all these stories. It’s something that I haven’t had to face yet but it helps me to know that I won’t alone in the depth of my feelings, that I won’t have to add feeling insane to my sense of loss.
And Clare you know you’ve always followed my advice selectively (which is doubtless wise).
You really touched a lot of hearts with this post. Thank you!
I will add that I think it’s healthy and human to wonder if we did the right thing. The hard part is telling when we’ve moved from processing difficult and important decisions to wallowing in guilt.
Grieving for a loved one is one of the healthiest things I think humans can do. Americans like to emphasize being upbeat and happy all the time. But I think that really being present in pain is an important skill for us to learn as humans.
Did you see this video? http://www.npr.org/blogs/pictureshow/2010/10/03/130312296/vimeo-contest?print=1. It’s terribly sad but I don’t think there’s an animal guardian out there who won’t relate.
Thank you in turn for your link to the video — I’d seen it but watched it again with enough tissues this time — and for your comment about being present in pain. I always struggle to be upbeat in my writing — and wallowing in guilt is not good, as you say — when in fact I’ve gotten some of the best responses in posts where I allowed myself to express negative feelings. Yin and yang, right?
So many great articles on this topic and I avoid them all like a Devil avoids the cross. I don’t want to think about this until I have to.
Which is kind of not true, because in a way I’m aware of this coming all the time. I believe that giving all I can is the only thing I can do. Avoids regret. Regret is what gets you the worst. I’ve seen that happen so many times. A person goes to pieces because “The last thing I said to him was (fill in the blank).
I truly believe that avoiding reasons for regret make the grieving process so much easier! Worked for me when my dad died. I searched my heart and found no reason for regret. What a relief! I could be ‘just’ sad.
As for my grieving process I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t try to get others who grieve to talk about it either, unless they start.
I don’t express my condolences. Insensitive? I believe quite the contrary. I had a collegue who lost her husband a month after they got married. She was trying to cope. She’d be at work and we’d talk about work or regular things. She would be ok. Then somebody would walk in and feel the need to express their condolences. She’d break down in tears. Every time. So I don’t care how rude people might think it is, I do not bring it up in any form or shape unless the grieving person does.
Wow, so many touching comments on a wonderful post (that I missed on my feed!) I’ve lost so, so many pets in my adult life and not one has been easy. Each and every one of them is a family member and have given me so much in their unique ways. And I will admit that the loss of them has been much harder than the loss of a few of my human family members.
I wish every human could understand that the loss of one of your pets can be devastating and cause tremendous grief – so that you weren’t forced to make up a story at work, so that you didn’t feel like you needed to get over it quickly. One of the things I’ve done with each one of my losses is to write them a letter. In those letters, I write about our journey together and basically tell them how much i will miss them. I could cry right now just thinking about the letters I’ve written – hope I won’t be writing another one anytime soon. In any event, these letters have been therapuetic and maybe something for others to try.
Thank you for this important post!
Oh, Kim, what a lovely idea those letters are. Thank you so much for sharing it. I’m glad that writing them was therapeutic — and I too hope you won’t be writing another anytime soon.
What an excellent idea Kim! I hadn’t thought of doing this before, but I really, really like it.
Just hopped by to catch up and decided I keep missin’ too much so added y’all to the Google Reader.
Not too long ago I came across some old photos of my older Chessie Sis, who passed several years before I came to live with these Humans. I wrote an entry with the pictures from her old website. The entry is called “in Memory”. She’s the whole reason I have my present home. My Humans insisted on another Chessie when they felt comfortable adding another to the family. I came to help them get past the emptiness in their lives and they are helping me to get past my special needs (bad allergies to food and even grass).
It’s a warm, loving two way street.
Y’all come by now,
Hawk aka BrownDog
how’s this for coincidence?
i had just finished posting a story about losing my first dog. it was meant to be for a child whose dog has been terminally ill with lymphoma. by some curious timing, i had no sooner hit the publish button when i received an email that the dog, kammy, had taken a turn for the worse and is to be put down later this week.
and then of course, i clicked on your blog and started reading your post. i think i might include it as a link in my post.
having said goodbye too many times, i don’t think it ever gets easier. i’m already dreading losing rufus and georgia. and she’s still young. but then, so’s kammy.
That was a very sweet story about your first dog, and I’m sorry that Kammy took a turn for the worse. Thanks for linking to this post; I hope it helps in a difficult time.
Edie – great post, and very necessary information. Losing a pet can be such a difficult experience, and the grief process so hard to traverse. For your readers – we offer many articles and support options for pet parents at
It worked! I’m going to delete the other comments with the nonworking links.
Hi Eddie – yes I like posts better when people do express both negative and positive feelings – more real life. I dread the loss of my nine year old westie – like Kim’s idea of a letter and I know I am going to have problems dealing with the loss – I think I would be comforted by visiting my fav pet blogs and telling people. The sequel to Rainbow Bridge, (thanks Bev) is lovely, as all pets deserve to cross and I also would like to think I’m there one day along with the pets I have lost to help out.
10 years ago I lost my first pet. My big tomcat Leo escaped from the house and was mauled by a big dog. I never knew what an impact losing an animal companion could have until then. It was the first time in my life I’d describe myself as depressed, and it was difficult for many months. As a glass artist, that experience inspired me to create a line of handblown glass pet cremation jewelry. Now I work with the ashes of people’s precious pets every day and read about the connections they had. There’s so much emotion in the stories and pictures I see. It’s clear that we need grieving rituals just as much for our pets as for our human companions.
This is a very helpful article. You can learn about topics like coping with pet loss and grief counseling techniques. In dealing with pet loss grief, helping yourself is the most important.
We lost our little frenchie last year and it still hurts. Thanks for sharing this.