GRIEVING THE LOSS OF A PET
Grief is the response to a profound, emotionally significant loss. This can be the loss of a person, an important dream in life, of health when there is a bad diagnosis, or the death of a pet. Grieving is a normal part of human experience, and each of us experiences grief differently.
In the loss of a pet, it’s not “just an animal” that has been lost. The death means that a source of non-judgmental love has left the home. The routines of the home will have to change without that pet to nurture and care for.
THE STAGES OF GRIEF
Psychologists talk about 5 stages of grief that are associated with significant losses. These stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In reality, people usually don’t go through each stage one at a time, but this way of looking at grief helps us to understand our experiences, whichever stage we are in, and however long it lasts.
The bereaved person has not yet accepted the reality of the death. They may feel stunned, bewildered, or even think or behave as if the death has not occurred.
The person in the anger stage of grief may be irritable and lash out at others, even those who are trying to comfort them. Family, friends, God, the veterinarian, or even themselves – a grieving person stuck in the anger stage is feeling hurt at the sense of an unfair loss, even though death is a natural part of life. Feelings of guilt or fear are also common.
Those in the bargaining stage have moved toward wanting to do something to save what they love, feeling that they would give something else up to preserve what has been or will be lost. Often people feel that if they do enough good deeds or make necessary changes to their life, they can preserve or get back what they are grieving for.
Many people think of sadness with depression. While this can be a symptom, a person experiencing depression may alternatively experience a numbness to events around them, disinterest in activities that once brought them joy, fatigue and a desire for excessive sleep, and hopelessness.
Acceptance comes when the changes from the loss are stabilized into an adjusted way of life.
The mourning process is different for each individual, and feelings can vary in intensity from one day to the next.
PET LOSS AND CHILDREN
The death of a pet can affect different children in varying ways. Sometimes children grieve for shorter periods of time, but their grief is not necessarily less intense than what is experienced by adults. Some children have a very difficult time understanding the concept of death, and may not understand its permanence when they are younger than 9 years old. Be patient with children who may want to talk about the subject repeatedly.
1. Let the child know that it’s ok to work through their grief, and it is normal
– tell their teacher about the pet’s death.
– encourage the child to talk freely about the pet.
– give the child plenty of hugs and reassurance.
– discuss death, dying and grief honestly.
2. Be careful about the implications of how you talk about death. Saying things like “God took your pet” or the pet was “put to sleep” can confuse children and cause them to fear that God will take others away from them or that they will not wake up if they go to sleep.
3. Include the child in everything that is going on.
4. Explain the permanency of death.
DO PETS GRIEVE?
What many people find hard to believe is that animals can form very firm attachments with each other. Even pets that outwardly seem to barely get along will exhibit intense stress reactions when separated. In fact, grieving pets can show many symptoms identical to those experienced by the bereaved pet owner. The surviving pet(s) may become restless, anxious and depressed. There may also be much sighing, along with sleep and eating disturbances. Often, grieving pets will search for their dead companions and crave more attention from their owners. How can an owner help the grieving pet? By following the following recommendations:
1. Keep the surviving pet(s) routines as normal as possible.
2. Try not to unintentionally reinforce the behavior changes.
– if the pet’s appetite is picky, don’t keep changing the food. All that does is create a more finicky pet.
– don’t overdo the attention given to the pet(s) as it can lead to separation anxiety.
3. Allow the surviving animals to work out the new dominance hierarchy themselves.
– there may be scuffles and fights as the animals work out the new pecking order (dogs mostly)
4. Don’t get a new pet to help the grieving pet(s) unless the owner is emotionally ready.
Given time, healing will occur for the bereaved owner. However, there are several things that the grief-stricken owner can do to help smooth the healing process:
1. Give yourself permission to grieve.
– only YOU know what your pet meant to you.
2. Memorialize your pet.
– makes the loss real and helps with closure.
– allows the bereaved to express their feelings, pay tribute and reflect.
– draws in social support.
3. Get lots of rest, good nutrition and exercise. Taking care of the body is often neglected during grieving when it is needed most.
4. Surround yourself with people who understand your loss.
5. Learn all you can about the grief process.
6. Accept the feelings that come with grief. It may be helpful to express them with art, music, writing, and talking about them.
7. Indulge yourself in small pleasures.
8. Be patient with yourself. The grieving process is faster for some than others. You’re ok, even if it takes a while.
9. Give yourself permission to backslide. Recovery from any kind of trauma is not a straight line. There are good days and bad days, or good weeks and bad weeks. This may especially be true when holidays or other events bring up old memories.
10. Don’t be afraid to get help. There are grief support groups that can be a huge help in the healing process.
11. Be open to spiritual or religious experiences, if it helps. Many people find comfort in prayer, meditation, and rituals or services.
Grief can be confusing, frustrating, painful and tiring. This can be especially true of grieving the loss of a pet. We care so much for our pets, and may feel isolated and alone after such a loss.
If you or someone you know is experiencing the loss and grief of losing a pet, you are not alone. Many of us have gone through the same thing. For more resources on dealing with grief, see the Rainbow Bridge website or the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement, who shared this poem: