Losing a pet can be devastating. Ask any animal lover who has opened their heart and home to a dog, cat, horse, bunny or gerbil. It can be harder than losing a loved one in many ways. Learning how to overcome grief and loss of a pet requires an understanding of why the loss is so deep.
It is another one of those life events that can rock our world and turn us upside down. What is it about the loss of a pet that is a hurt of a special kind?
With the exception of the children you birth or adopt or parent in other ways, there are few others in your life who depend on you entirely. Even the children, as they mature and become self-sufficient, outgrow the need for your active attention.
Pets, on the other hand, rely on their humans for everything. You take the responsibility to feed them, keep them safe, and let them out to “take a break.” You take them for a walk as you get exercise yourself. You socialize them with the neighbor’s pets or at the dog park. You train them to behave so they are acceptable family members. Most importantly, you love them with all the unconditional love you get in return. You create their world, and you both get to love in that world.
As a result of all this care you give your pet, it is no small wonder that you become attached. So attached, in fact, that when you lose them you are left with an enormous hole in your heart and a life-altering change in your daily routine.
As an animal lover myself, I speak from heart-wrenching experience.
Why is Grieving the Loss of a Pet So Hard?
First of all, not everyone understands how you’re feeling. People who are not lovers of animals and have no pets likely won’t get the depth of your connection. You may feel ashamed to talk about how deeply you are feeling the loss, leaving you feeling isolated. Those are not the people you should hang out with during this grieving period.
Secondly, I don’t know of any company who gives bereavement time for the loss of a pet. Consequently, if you work for someone else, taking extended time off from work may not be in the cards. And, if you work for yourself, your business success depends on you showing up. It’s hard to show up, especially in the early stages, when you’re trying to cope with grief over the loss of your beloved fur-baby.
Thirdly, your identity has changed. This is most significant when you’ve lost an only- child-pet. You are no longer pet-mom to the 3-pound yapper at the dog park, or to that gorgeous, gentle-giant who loved everyone you met along your daily walk.
Even when you have multiple animals, as I do, the loss of one dear pet changes everything in the family. One day everything is normal and the next day everyone in the family is reacting to the loss, including your other pets.
Lastly, there is the emptiness you feel when your furry friend no longer greats you at the door. The tail wagged so hard her whole body wagged. She would stand on her hind legs and pin you to the door, licking your face, garlic breath and all. It didn’t matter whether you had been away for five hours or five minutes, the greeting was the same. That unconditional love is hard to find from anyone else. And now it’s gone.
What Can You Do to Ease Your Loss of a Pet?
Grief is grief. And it is your grief. Experiencing the emotion you feel is important. In the Scientific American article, Why We Need to Take Pet Loss Seriously, Dr. Guy Winch indicates that overcoming the loss of a pet can take one to two months, with symptoms of grief lasting up to a year.
Finding a support system of people who understand your loss, typically other animal lovers, is essential to you being able to talk about your loss. Exchanging stories without feeling judged for your deep emotion will help ease the pain. If you don’t have anyone who understands, you might seek support from the online community called Rainbow’s Bridge.
It is equally important to share your memories as you learn how to overcome the grief and loss of a pet. That includes the fun times, the challenges, and the love. At some point, you may even want to memorialize her with a special box or framed display case that hold her ashes, collar, a lock of hair, and the like. The act of creating a memorial for your pet helps to keep her close and put some closure on the loss.
Adjusting your routine can help to shift the sense of loss. When it is time to take your normal walk with your pet, consciously do something else. Walk at a different time and take a different route—not to the dog park but to another destination. Invite a friend to join you. You can use this time to talk about your loss, memories, and plans for the future.
Exploring ways to overcoming the loss of a pet without losing yourself in the process will take a bit of time. Don’t despair. Reach out for the support you need and take care of you in the process.
When Is It Time to Love Again?
Only you can answer this question for yourself. For many, it takes some time before they can consider opening their heart again and bring a new pet into their home. No one else can tell you when your heart is ready to love another furry friend.
What I know for sure is this—an animal lover, like us, has a lot of love to give. And, that love doesn’t end when we experience the loss of a pet. It may hide for a while, but not forever.
And, you may be one of those who say, “I’ll never be able to replace her.” That’s a true statement. No pet can ever be replaced. But, I’ll bet you this—when the deep sorrow subsides, there will be something missing in your life that only another pet can fill. It is probably because animals add meaning and purpose to your life. That is not something to take lightly or to ignore.
You may be thinking that you would betray the pet you lost by bringing another into your life. Think about that some more. Every dog or cat I’ve ever had wanted nothing more than for me to be happy—and they did everything in their power to make it so. Don’t you think they would want your sadness to subside so another loving animal could bring you joy again? I think so.
When the time is right, you’ll know it. In my life, every pet that I have rescued has somehow found me at the exact moment I was ready to open my heart and my home.
Step Onto Your Bridge
When life-changing moments, like the loss of a pet, flip your world upside down, I create a bridge so you can turn chaos into calm. You build resilience and learn to live a life guided by your own values and vision. Are you ready to take the first step onto your bridge? Do you want to explore how change can impact you? Would you like to learn how to move through it with more dignity and grace? I’m here to help. Get my free ebook From Darkness to Light: Learning to Adapt to Change and Move Through Transition.