When someone you love dies, it’s natural to expect others to offer sympathy and compassion. Unfortunately, when a pet dies, the same feelings of grief are often brushed away by others who consider a dog or a cat “just a pet” rather than a member of the family.
“The loss of a companion animal can be just as significant as the loss of a person,” said Dr. Stephanie LaFarge, senior director of counseling services with the ASPCA’s Midwest office in Urbana, Ill. “Grieving is a normal reaction because pets are intimately involved in our lives.”
Pets depend on us for basic needs and in return offer unconditional love “that is not burdened with the complexities of most human-human relations. This adds up to deep sense of closeness and acceptance that is truly irreplaceable,” said Dr. Amir Shanan of Chicago’s Compassionate Veterinary Care, founder of the International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care.
The normal grieving process can include denial, anger, sadness and depression and can last a few days or much longer, especially if the pet’s death was sudden or violent.
“The most severe emotions should pass in about a week,” LaFarge said. “Seek help from a doctor if grieving interferes with your ability to maintain your health or affects your eating and sleeping.”
Ages and loss
The loss of a pet is often a child’s first experience with death, and “it’s an opportunity for parents to be honest and teach their children that loss is part of life,” LaFarge said.
For seniors, coping with the loss of a pet can be particularly hard, triggering immense loneliness and memories of past losses and the belief that they will never be able to own another pet.
Seniors should try to cope with their loss and regain a sense of purpose. Interact with friends, volunteer at an animal shelter, and remember that feelings of grief are normal.
Tips to cope
“The most effective way to cope with the pain is to engage in activities that memorialize the meaningful aspects of the relationship with your pet,” Shanan advised.
And remember, “while grief is a personal experience, you need not face loss alone,” said Inga Fricke, certified animal welfare administrator and director of sheltering and pet care issues for the Humane Society of the United States, Washington, D.C.
Many forms of support are available, including pet-loss counseling services, support hotlines and local or online bereavement groups. Here are a few tips:
• Acknowledge your grief and give yourself permission to express it.
• Reach out to others for sympathy. Call a pet-loss hotline such as the toll-free ASPCA line at 877-474-3310.
• Do something creative. Adults can write a journal article or poem; parents can help children create a memory book.
• Revisit the places that were special to you, such as the dog park.
• Memorialize your pet with a special urn, burial or personal jewelry that incorporates the remains, such as those found at www.perfectmemorials.com.
“Paying tribute to the love you shared helps to create a sense of continued presence of the loved one that died,” Shanan said.