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Grieving the Loss of a Pet
by Mel March 28th 2009, 08:04 AM

Grieving the Loss of a Pet
By Shaz

When a person you love dies, it is natural to feel sorrow, express grief, and expect friends and family to provide understanding and comfort.

Given the rich and intense relationships most pet owners share with their animal companions, the loss of a pet can be very painful. The loss of a beloved pet can trigger overwhelming feelings of grief and sadness. Many consider grieving inappropriate for someone who has lost "just a pet." In reality, though, nothing could be further from the truth.

Although our pets live relatively short lives, for many of us who love our pets, their death can still affect us in powerful ways. The death of a pet leaves few people entirely untouched.

A pet may come to symbolize many things to each of us. It may represent a child, or perhaps the innocent child in us all. It may reflect the ideal mate or parent: ever faithful, patient and welcoming, loving us unconditionally. It is a reflection of ourselves, embodying negative and positive qualities we recognize or lack in ourselves. The same pet may be all of these, alternating between roles on any given day or for each member of the family.

When a pet dies, we expect that our pain will be acknowledged, even if it is not shared, by our relatives, friends and colleagues. Though the bond between ourselves and our pet is as valuable as any of our human relationships, the importance of its loss may not be appreciated by other people. The process of grieving for a pet is no different than mourning the death of a human being. The difference lies in the value that is placed on our pet by our family and by society as a whole.

How is the loss of a pet similar to and different from the loss of a human friend or family member?

One important difference between pet loss and human loss is that pet loss is often not appreciated. Friends and family may ask ďWhatís the big deal? Itís just an animal, you can always get a new one!" There is also the assumption by many that pet loss shouldnít hurt as much as human loss, because humans are supposedly more important than pets.

For someone who has truly loved a pet, however, the loss of that animal can feel just as, if not more, devastating as a human loss. The very things that make animals different than humans often make them more endearing. An animal who doesnít talk canít pass judgment or give you the silent treatment or withhold companionship and love. For many, pets provide a source of love, affection and companionship. Some of the qualities of a beloved pet are hard to match in human form for some owners. The loss of such companionship can be heartbreaking.

The truth is that all losses, animal or human, can plunge you into despair and may signal the beginning of a profound spiritual-emotional journey. Like grief for humans, grief for animal companions can only be dealt with over time and in stages.

The stages of grief

The stages of grief are not orderly and precise, and sometimes the stages overlap. Even after you feel Ďhealed,í itís quite possible to feel the old pain afresh. When other life events prove challenging, you may feel as if you are reliving your loss when faced with the absence of the comfort your pet provided. Knowing the stages of the grief process will not make them easier to go through, but knowing that your feelings are similar to those of others who have experienced loss might make you feel less alone in your sadness. Some people will quickly progress through all the phases, while others appear to get "stuck" in a particular phase. It's different for everyone. Briefly, the stages of grief are as follows:

1. Shock and Denial:
The reality of death has not yet been accepted by the bereaved. He or she feels stunned and bewildered as if everything is "unreal."

2. Anger:
The grief stricken person often lashes out at family, friends, themselves, God, the Veterinarian or the world in general. Bereaved people will also experience feelings of guilt or fear during this stage.

3. Bargaining:
The normal reaction to feelings of helplessness and vulnerability is often a need to regain control. If only we had sought medical attention sooner. If we got a second opinion from another doctor. If we changed our pet's diet, maybe it will get well. Secretly, we may make a deal with God or our higher power in an attempt to postpone the inevitable. This is a weaker line of defense to protect us from the painful reality.

4. Depression:
Depression occurs as a reaction to the changed way of life created by the loss. The bereaved person feels intensely sad, hopeless, drained and helpless. The pet is missed and thought about constantly.

5. Acceptance:
Acceptance comes when the changes brought upon the person by the loss are stabilized into a new lifestyle. The depth and intensity of the mourning process depends on many factors. The age of the owner, circumstances surrounding the death, relationship of the animal to the owner and to other family members, are all significant. Recently experiencing the death of a significant person in the owner's life can also affect how the pet's death is handled. Usually, children recover more quickly, while the elderly take the longest. Sometimes, the death of a pet will finally enable the bereaved to mourn the loss of a person whose death had not yet been accepted.

How Can I Cope with My Grief?

While grief is a personal experience, you need not face loss alone. Many forms of support are available, including pet bereavement counselling services, pet-loss support hotlines, local or online Internet bereavement groups, books, videos, and magazine articles.

Here are a few suggestions to help you cope:

  • Acknowledge your grief and give yourself permission to express it.
  • Don't hesitate to reach out to others who can lend a sympathetic ear. Being around caring, supportive people can help you move forward.
  • Write about your feelings, either in a journal or a poem.
  • Call your local humane society to see whether it offers a pet loss support group or can refer you to one.
  • You may also want to ask your veterinarian or local animal shelter about available pet loss hotlines.
  • Explore the Internet for pet loss support groups and coping information.
  • Prepare a memorial for your pet.

Getting a new pet?

Though itís tempting to fill the void of one petís passing with another pet, most vets and grief counsellors say itís best to mourn the old pet so that the new one can be appreciated fully for its own sake, not as a replacement. That may mean choosing another type of pet or a different breed. Follow your instincts and you will know when it is right to bring a new animal companion into your life.


Last edited by Katrina; May 10th 2009 at 07:43 PM.
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