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Dealing with the Loss of Unconditional Love

Everyone who loves them says the same thing: The only thing wrong with pets is that they just don’t live long enough. And it’s true. Their lifespans are shorter than ours. Someday, they’ll be gone.

For many, our pets are closer to us than some members of our own families. They live in our homes for years. They sleep in our beds and take us for walks, regardless of the weather. We tend to their needs; they tend to ours. The relationship is often liberating and intense; we can be ourselves with our pets more easily than we can with many of the humans in our lives. Good times or bad, they’re there for us, comforting us, forgiving us, and spurring our imaginations. Their habits become ours, and vice versa. And no matter how young or old we are, they keep reminding us how much fun it is to play!

Pets don’t care if we sing off-key; they don’t judge, criticize, correct, or demean. We carry their photos on our cell phones. We confide in them. Sure, they can manipulate us, but what are treats for? More often than not, the unconditional love between humans and pets flows both ways…and when it stops, when the object of such pure affection dies, it truly can devastate us.

“It’s just a…”

When people we love pass away, no one is surprised to see us grieving. It’s natural…to be expected. We can look to friends and family to provide sympathy and understanding and give us time and space to experience our feelings and arrive at some peace.

But when a pet dies, it’s often a different story. People we thought we knew and trusted often consider grieving for a pet strange, even silly. "It’s just a dog," they say. “It's just a cat.”

They have no idea.

Pets are important members of our families. Considering how much emotional support and companionship they provide, it’s natural and healthy to feel intense sorrow when they die. But knowing its natural doesn’t make it easy. Step number one: acknowledge your feelings. You don’t have to justify how to feel to anyone. Your love for your pet is all the permission you need to grieve his or her loss.

A Fitting Tribute

Commemorate the life of your beloved pet with one of our Tribute Gifts, such as a Tribute Tile in our Shelter Gallery.

For more ways to honor your pet, visit AnimalLeague.org/TributeGifts.

Grief, and where it takes you

In her groundbreaking book “On Death and Dying” (1969), Elizabeth Kübler-Ross delineated five stages of grieving, which apply as much to losing a beloved pet as they do to the death of a dear person. Of course, everyone grieves differently, and Kübler-Ross did not propose a five-step recipe for living through loss. Rather, the list presents a dynamic and fluid process. For some, the process is more or less sequential; for others, it develops its own rhythms, with feelings that overlap, leave, return, and often collide. In any case, most of us experience some aspect of all of these stages. Taken together, these insights shed light on where we are, what we can expect, and how we can care both for ourselves and for those around us.

1. Denial. Denial is a defense mechanism that dulls the shock of loss and gets us through the initial surge of pain. It’s that raw time when, just after a pet’s death, you could swear you heard him in the other room, “attacking” his favorite catnip mouse. Or you see her coming around the corner with her food dish in her mouth…or sitting by the door, asking to go out. But it’s not your dog you see by the door; it’s a shoe. And it’s not your cat you hear; it’s your grief — and it feels as if it’s everywhere, inhabiting every space your pet ever occupied, including that emptiness in the pit of your stomach. Denial is both confusing and comforting, and it’s crucial for helping you realize how much you loved your companion and how deeply you miss him or her.

2. Anger. Denial is often followed by anger, which arrives when reality sets in. Grieving people can direct their anger almost anywhere — family, friends, veterinarians, even the pet we loved so much. We know better rationally, but emotionally it’s tempting to blame someone for the pain we’re feeling, including ourselves. “The vet should have seen this coming and done something. I should have gotten a second opinion. Why did my pet leave my like this?”

3. Bargaining. Many people try to deal with their sense of vulnerability and helplessness by bargaining, often with a higher power, with themselves, or even with their lost pet. Sometimes the bargaining involves a sense of guilt about what they did or didn’t do for their pet. Often it’s a jumble of intense, confusing emotions that seem impossible to reconcile. “I’d do anything for just one more day,” you think. “Anything!” If only I could take him for one more walk” “If only I could hear her purr one more time.” If only…If only…

4. Depression. Sometimes depression is another word for sadness. In this state, grief can lead us to acknowledge the finality of the separation we must face. Some people withdraw into their own worlds; others begin to reach out to others. In both cases, mourners need support and patience. Sadness helps you acknowledge that you’re wounded, and that’s the first step toward healing.

5. Acceptance. This is in some ways the most challenging stage in the grieving process. Acceptance does not mean forgetting or betrayal. What it does mean is embracing the sweet, beautiful life your pet lived, as well as the sad fact of his or her death. It means seeing and forgiving life itself for having an end, a fact we all know intellectually but often lose track of emotionally. Acceptance also recognizes that no other pet could replace the one you lost. At this point, remembering can bring more smiles than tears.

Finding support

Everyone grieves differently. Ultimately, it’s a deeply personal, individual experience. Nevertheless, others have gone through it, and you can reach out to them and profit from their stories. Misery loves company, they say, and today, people grieving their companion animals can find wise company in many forms.

Go online. More than ever before, medical and psychiatric professionals are acknowledging and honoring the unique human/animal bond by offering safe, respectful support for people grieving the loss of a pet. Look for pet bereavement groups in your area. Talk to your veterinarian; many practices offer bereavement services for grieving clients. Check out pet-loss hotlines, books, videos, and magazine articles. Some experts in the field advise keeping a journal of your memories and feelings; others suggest holding a memorial event for your pet. And remember, as someone who dearly loved a pet, you probably have sensitive friends who’ve experienced similar loss. Talk to them. They want to listen. They want to help.

Giving support

Children
For many children, the loss of a pet is their first experience of death. Children may blame themselves, their parents, or the veterinarian for letting their best friend die. Once again, the Internet offers a variety of sites full of sound advice. One thing experts agree on is that honesty is the best policy when dealing with children whose pets have died. Trying to soften the blow with a lie (“Sandy ran away!”) is the wrong approach. Not only will the child fantasize that the pet might return, he or she will feel betrayed after learning the truth. Being honest and gentle is best for the child and for your relationship.

Seniors
Older people whose pets die face a unique kind of grief. If they live alone, they might feel an overwhelming emptiness. Death always reminds us of our own mortality, but for seniors this reminder has a powerful immediacy. For older people, loss accumulates, and a pet's death may remind them of other losses in their lives. Further, deciding whether to adopt another pet is complicated by the possibility that the pet may outlive the senior. For these and other reasons, older people need special support and should take steps to deal with their loss and reaffirm their reason for carrying on. If you are a senior, reach out to friends and family. Contact a pet-loss hotline, or consider volunteering with a rescue group. If you know a senior in this situation, make a special effort to help by providing a sympathetic ear and pertinent information. No one has to do this alone.

Other Pets
Surviving pets often grieve, too. Some refuse refuse to eat or drink, become lethargic or restless. Some become especially needy or “break training,” especially if they had a close connection with the deceased pet. Pets are especially sensitive to changes in their environment. Your distress, body language, and sadness can make a pet anxious and fearful. Talk to your veterinarian about how you can help your pets cope. Keeping the household as normal as possible will help them — and you — regain your footing.

Adopting another pet

Once again, there is no universal answer to when you “should” adopt another pet. In fact, there are no “shoulds” in the grieving process. You know you’ll never replace your deceased pet, any more than you could replace a beloved friend who’s died. Individuals are not replaceable, no matter the species.

People say you'll know when the time is right to adopt, and chances are you will. For some, the best way to grieve is to adopt immediately. For others, it takes time. So pay attention to how you feel. Make sure you’re ready to make the commitment again, even with all the emotional risks it entails.

Then, when the time comes, be sure to visit your local animal shelter. There will always be someone waiting for you. And the best way to honor the pet you’ve lost is to save the life of another.

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