The Grief Experience When Your Pet Passes Away

June 9th 2016

Grief is a normal response to loss when we have allowed ourselves to form deep bonds with our pets.

Whether the human-animal bond is broken through anticipated loss, such as prolonged terminal illness (e.g. cancer or mobility issues), or a sudden and unexpected loss through an accident or sudden illness, traumatic grief responses may develop which require intervention.

Grief must be acknowledged and validated. The sense of loss for our companion animals can be just as intense as it is for our human companions and relatives. Unfortunately, there are many in our society who do not appreciate the depth of human-animal bonds. They may try to trivialize this loss and ease their own anxieties around death and dying with such phrases as:

“Don’t feel bad… you have other pets”

“Don’t feel bad, you can always get another”

“It was only a cat/dog…”

“In time you will feel better”

How you may feel when your pet passes away

Such remarks only encourage those grieving to internalize their pain and sense of loss; suffering in silence and feeling lonelier than ever.

The multitude of emotions provoked by the loss of our companion animals are many – anger, confusion, loneliness, despair and guilt. Anger can be directed inwards at our own choices or at others for the advice given. We may not always understand why our beloved pet died and we may question our own choices and judgement.

How to cope with an ailing pet

I truly believe we make the best decisions we can with the information we have at the time. It is not always easy to know, but with the support of friends, family and in consultation with your veterinarian (i.e. an end of life assessment), we work to make the best decision to ensure our animals do not needlessly suffer.

Our guilt robs us of our chance to heal and recover. Ensuring that we are as informed as possible can help to alleviate this sense of guilt. Rest assured, pet parents attempt to make the best decision out of their genuine love and concern for their animal.

What bereavement help is available?

As if the loss of our companion animal is not enough, it can often trigger a past (unresolved) experience of loss. This loss can be related to other companion animals that have passed on, the death of close friends or family, divorce, or even physical losses associated with traumatic natural disasters such as floods and fires. Some people may need clinical therapeutic support to deal with these compounded unresolved issues of grief. Such loss can be disruptive to daily functioning. If you know someone you care about struggling with grief, reach out and offer support and encourage them to seek additional help from a counsellor experienced in grief. This is especially imperative if the following signs are present:
  • Prolonged tearfulness or uncontrolled irritability lasting several weeks
  • Mood fluctuations
  • Sleep disturbances – insomnia, trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Nightmares
  • Increased anxiety, racing thoughts as if they cannot ‘turn off’ their thoughts
  • Loss of interest in pleasurable activities
  • Changes in appetite
  • Increased substance use
  • Social isolation
  • Difficulties concentrating at work or school
  • Regressive behaviours observed in children and decreased school performance

You Are Not Alone

What is most important for those grieving the loss of their beloved companion animal is not to feel alone, to have their feelings validated and most of all, feel heard. We cannot take away a person’s sense of pain but we can be there alongside them to honour the connection they have had with their loved one.

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