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Lindsey Veterinary Hospital

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Understanding Your Feelings of Loss

After your animal has died or been lost, it is natural and normal to feel grief and sorrow. While grieving is an internal and private response, there are certain shared processes that most people experience. By understanding the grieving process, you will be better prepared to manage your grief and to help others in the family who are also sharing the loss.

The Stages of Grief

There are many signs of grief, but not everyone experiences them all in the same order. You may experience denial, anger, guilt, depression, acceptance, and resolution.

Your first reaction may be denial- denial that the animal has died. This reaction may occur even before death when you first learn the extent of your animal's illness or injuries. Often, the more sudden the death, the more difficult the loss is to accept.

Anger and guilt often follow denial. This anger can be directed toward people you normally love and respect, including your family and your veterinarian. People will often say things that they do not really mean, perhaps hurting those whom they do not mean to hurt. You may feel guilt or blame others for not recognizing the illness earlier, for not doing something sooner, for not being able to afford other types of treatment, or for being careless and allowing the animal to be injured.

Depression is also part of the range of emotions experienced after the death of a loved animal. This is the period when you usually feel the greatest sense of loss. The tears flow, there are knots in your stomach, and you feel drained of all your energy. Day-to-day tasks can seem impossible. Sometimes you may even ask yourself if you can go on without the animal. The answer is yes, but there are times when special assistance may be helpful.

Eventually, you will come to terms with your feelings. You can begin to resolve and accept your animal's death. When you have reached a resolution and acceptance, feelings of anger, denial, guilt, and depression may reappear. If this does occur, the intensity of these feelings will be much less, and with time, these feelings will be replaced with fond memories.

Although the signs of grief apply whether the loss is of an animal or human loved one, grieving is a personal process. Some people take longer than others to come to terms with denial, anger, guilt, or depression, and each loss is different. If you understand that these are normal reactions, you will be better prepared to cope with your own feelings and to help others face theirs. Family and friends should be reassured that sorrow and grief are normal, natural reactions to death.

They May Not Understand

Well-meaning family and friends may not realize how important your animal was to you or the intensity of your grief. Comments they make may seem cruel and uncaring. Be honest with yourself and others about how you feel. If despair mounts, talk to someone who will listen about your animal and the illness and death. Talk about your sorrow, but also about the fun times you and the animal spent together the activities you enjoyed and the memories that are meaningful.

The Hurt is so Deep

If you or a family member has great difficulty in accepting your animal's death and cannot resolve feelings of grief and sorrow, you may want to discuss those feelings with a person who is trained to understand the grieving process. Here are a few numbers of pet loss support centers to call if you would like to talk to someone:

C.A.R.E. Pet Loss Helpline (877) 394-2273

Iams Pet Loss Support Center (888) 332-7738

Also, check local counselors in your area.

Should I get another animal?

The death of an animal can upset you emotionally, especially when euthanasia is involved. Some people may feel that they would never want another animal. For others, a new animal may help them get over the loss more quickly. Just as grief is a personal experience, the decision of when, if ever, to bring a new animal into your home is also a personal one. If a family member is having difficulty accepting the animal's death, bringing a new animal into the home before that person has resolved his or her grief may imply that the life of the deceased animal was unworthy of the grief that is still being felt. Family members should come to an agreement on the appropriate time to acquire a new animal. Although you can never replace the animal you lost, you can obtain another to share your life with.

How can I help my children process our loss?

It is important for your children to see and experience your grieving process. Being truthful with your children will also aid in healing (depending on your child's age of course). If your pet was or is going to be, euthanized, avoid using phrases such as "put to sleep", "is very sick", or "is going away". These can be difficult concepts for children to understand. "We are helping Fluffy to die because we love her very much and do not want her to suffer" is a more truthful and less ambiguous statement. Make your pet's death more meaningful by asking your children how they would like to memorialize their animal friend.

What are some ways I can remember my animal?

The period from birth to old age is much more brief in domestic animals than in people. Death is part of the life cycle for all creatures. It cannot be avoided, but its impact can be met with understanding and compassion. Try to recall the good times you spent with your animal. By remembering the pleasure of those times, you can realize your animal was worthy of your grief. You may also wish to establish a memorial of some type in honor of your animal. Here are some other helpful ideas:

  • Write a letter to your pet

  • Write a poem

  • Keep your pet's tags on your key ring

  • Wear jewelry that reminds you of your pet

  • Hold a memorial ceremony and/or light a candle in memory

  • Leave the pet's favorite toy or food bowl in place

  • Plant a tree in honor of your pet

  • Donate money to an animal charity in your pet's honour

  • Inscribe a plaque, clock, or bracelet

  • Create a special place at home to remember your pet

  • Start a keepsake box

  • Display and/or create a scrapbook of your favorite photos

Will my other pets mourn?

Pets exhibit behavior that indicates they do grieve as well as humans do when the loss of a loved one occurs. Pets grieve whether the loss is a human companion or another pet in the household.

How can you tell if your pet is grieving? There will be noticeable symptoms such as lethargy and loss of appetite. The pet may display behavioral changes such as anxiety or change in temperament. A very active playful pet may suddenly become quiet and withdrawn. He may refuse to play with his favorite toy or engage in regular activities.

If the loss was another pet, the one that is left may wander around the house searching for the pet that passed away. Pets will behave in much the same way if the loss is a human companion. A dog may sit by the door expecting the person to come home. A cat may sit in the window for the same purpose.

Animals are more intelligent than we often realize. They experience emotions too. What can you do to help a pet through the grieving process? Try to keep the pet's regular routine as normal as possible. Households may tend to become hectic following the loss of a family member, which can be even more disruptive for the grieving pet. Try to provide the pet with as much normalcy as possible considering the circumstances.

If your dog is barking more or whining, distract her. Don't give her treats to distract her or you might unintentionally reinforce the barking. Giving attention during any behavior will help to reinforce it so be sure you are not reinforcing a behavior that you don't like. Give attention at a time when your dog is engaging in behaviors that you do like, such as when she is resting quietly or watching the birds. As the pain of the loss begins to subside, so should the vocalizing as long as it is related to the grieving process.

If the loss is another pet, many pet owners wonder if they should get another pet as soon as possible so the survivor won't be lonely. This is a personal choice for the pet owner but there are a few things to consider before making a decision. The grieving pet may not adapt easily to a new pet in the household. The current pet may resent the newcomer and could even react aggressively toward the new member.

It may be best to allow you and your pet time to grieve and adjust to the loss. Forcing your pet to get to know a newcomer will only add stress to her already anxiety-ridden emotional state. And be patient. Your pet may miss its companion as much as you do.

When you and your pet are ready for a new addition to the family it may be best to bring a kitten or puppy home rather than an adult pet. Although this is not true of every animal, some pets will be more accepting of a young companion.

Give your pet time for the emotional wounds to heal. Spend time with your pet. Animals can sense that you are grieving too. Your pet may make attempts to comfort you by climbing into your lap, lying next to you, purring, or licking your hands or face. Your pet knows you need him as much as he needs you. Together you can work through the grief process.

Helpful Books

When Your Pet Dies- How to Cope with Your Feelings Jamie Quackenbush/ Denise Graveline

Goodbye My Friend M & H Montgomery

The Loss of A Pet W Sife

Coping with the Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet M. Anderson

Absent Friend L & M Lee

Coping with the Loss of a Pet CM Lemieux

Joy in A Wooly Coat: Living with, Loving & Letting Go of Treasured Animal Friends J A Church

Pet Loss: A Thoughtful Guide for Adults and Children H A Nieburg

Death, the Final State of Growth E Kubler-Ross

For Children:

Cat Heaven and Dog Heaven Cynthia Rylant

A Special Place for Charlie: A Child's Companion Through Pet Loss Debby Morehead

Talking about Death: A Dialogue between Parent and Child E A Grollman

Oh, Where Has My Pet Gone? A Pet Loss Memory Book, Ages 3-103 S Sibbitt