When faced with the loss of a pet, many of us worry about our reactions. Is it OK to grieve? Are my feelings normal? Should I get a new pet right away? These are all very common questions after pet loss, especially when that pet was a part of the family. It’s important to remember that there is no “right” way to grieve a loss, and that everyone deals with pain in their own way.
Is It Normal To Grieve for a Pet?
Many people consider their pets to be part of the family, so it’s completely natural to grieve after the loss of a dog, cat, or other companion animal. Your pet provided you with so much: unconditional love, emotional support, companionship, and more. Often, we miss not only the pet itself, but also the loss of these gifts.
People have different experiences with companion animals – when someone says “it was just a cat” after the loss of a pet, the reality is that they might simply have never had the opportunity to have a close relationship with a pet and they don’t understand the pain of the loss. Usually, they mean well and are trying to encourage you to put the loss into their own perspective. Grief makes people uncomfortable, and although they want to help, most people aren’t sure how to do so. Don’t let others tell you how you should or shouldn’t feel, or when you should “get over” your loss.
Grieving after a pet loss is common, and there is no timetable on your pain. Different people respond to loss in different ways, often influenced by their personalities, life experiences, and current circumstances. It can take weeks or months – or even longer – to work through your feelings. Give yourself the time that you need.
Is it Normal to Feel Guilty? Angry? Depressed?
While not everyone’s grief is expressed in the same way, there are some common reactions to the loss of a pet. There’s really no right or wrong way to grieve, and letting yourself feel the emotions is often and important part of accepting your loss. Many people feel guilt, anger, denial, and depression when a pet dies.
Denying that you’re sad or angry rarely makes those feelings go away; it just makes them linger and often makes you feel even worse, since you feel bad for feeling those emotions at all. The healthiest response is to let yourself feel any emotions that you experience, and to try to focus on accepting your loss and moving on. Again, there is no set timetable for getting over pet loss, but letting yourself focus obsessively on the sadness and loss can make it harder to move past.
Most pet owners experience guilt and regret after the death of a pet. We are ultimately responsible for what happens to our pets, so when they die by whatever cause, guilt is a very natural response. They counted on us to care for them, and we feel like we’ve failed. This emotion is amplified if we were directly connected to the cause of death in some way, whether by accidentally feeding the dog a dangerous food or deciding to euthanize the cat due to illness.
Euthanasia is, in fact, a cause of deep guilt for many pet owners. It’s almost always an incredibly difficult decision, even when it’s usually the right one. We argue with ourselves that we could have done more to prevent the situation, that we made the decision too quickly, or that we should have tried additional treatment options. The truth is that, in most cases, your decision was the right one and spared your animal companion from suffering additional pain.
Acknowledge your guilt, think honestly about what you did or didn’t do, and then forgive yourself. If your actions had a direct impact on the death of your pet, make the commitment to change your behavior in the future. None of us are perfect, and we will make mistakes, but we can learn from them. Do your best to change what you can, but accept that you can’t go back and undo what’s already been done.
Like guilt, the loss of a pet can trigger anger in many people. You may be angry at the veterinarian for not doing something that could have saved your pet, angry at a careless driver or thoughtless neighbor who caused the pet’s death, or angry at yourself for not doing enough to prevent the death. Some people also get angry at the pet itself for dying, or at the illness or injury for causing so much pain.
It’s OK to be angry, but it’s important to deal with that anger in a productive way. Yelling at your veterinarian isn’t going to change the situation. Attacking someone physically or verbally won’t bring your pet back. If someone did, in fact, cause your pet’s death through their actions, you may want to consider what legal options are available to you. In other situations, however, you may not know who hurt your pet or there may be no clear evidence that someone else caused the death.
With any emotion that you feel after the loss of a pet, it’s important to acknowledge your feelings and express them in a productive way. Some people cope with anger by shouting at the sky or exercising to release the frustrations. Others choose to volunteer with an animal care organization to help make sure that other animals get the care that they need. Over time, the anger will likely lessen and allow you to focus on the positive time that you spent with your pet.
Sadness and Depression
Deep sadness is a common response to the loss of a dog, cat, or other pet. When your pet was a close companion and part of the family, there’s a hole left in our lives. Most pet owners are devastated by such a loss, and it takes time to move past it.
Let yourself cry. It’s not a sign of weakness – it’s an expression of loss and sadness. Suppressing the need to cry can lead to an unexpected breakdown later, or simply make you feel much worse in the long run. If you can, take a day off of work and let yourself fully experience the full emotions of your loss, reacting in whatever way you need to. Be kind to yourself.
When sadness becomes overwhelming and starts to have a major impact on your life, it’s time to seek professional help. The loss of a pet can trigger depression or other mental health issues. Take care of yourself and get the help that you need. Asking for help is often the healthiest thing you can do for yourself.
Everyone experiences grief in their own way. While guilt, anger, and depression are common responses, you might find yourself reacting in different ways. Some people try to deny that the death occurred or that they are feeling anything in response to it. Others feel like they see their pet out of the corner of their eye or regularly feel like they might come home at any time. There are no wrong emotions, and there are no emotions that you should be feeling. Your reactions may be similar to those of other people, but there’s nothing wrong with you if they aren’t. You feel what you feel, and that’s OK.
How Do I Get Over the Loss of a Pet?
Grief isn’t something that needs to be gotten over or ignored. It’s a natural part of life, and something that we need to learn how to deal with. Don’t worry about rushing through your grief – let yourself feel it, but don’t let it control your life. Many people who experience loss never “get over it,” as people say; they simply learn how to heal and live with the loss as a part of their lives.
The amount of time that it takes you to work through your grief at the loss of a pet and come to a place of acceptance also varies by individual. If you had a deep bond with your pet, no matter for how long, it may take a long time to deal with it. Don’t give yourself a strict timetable. Healing takes as long as it takes.
It’s important not to sit and dwell on the loss or let self-pity take over, however. Many people mistakenly believe that, if they work through a pet’s loss, that means forgetting about the bond that they had or suggesting that it wasn’t important. Letting yourself feel the loss, accepting it, and working through the pain can instead allow you to focus on the happier times and the love and companionship that your pet gave you rather than the sadness and loss. Remembering the joy and love is one of the best ways to honor your pet.
We can’t choose how we feel about pet loss, but we can choose how we respond to those feelings. Find a project or task to allow you to focus some of your attention on something else. This isn’t about ignoring or hiding your pain; instead, it helps you learn how to cope with pet loss as part of your daily life.
You should also look at ways to deal with your grief directly, whether by creating a memorial to your pet, reaching out to friends or family members who have suffered a similar loss, or seeking out a pet loss support group or hotline. Simply talking about your pet and expressing any feelings that you have is a huge help for many people. If writing helps, keep a journal or create a blog to express your feelings.
When Should I Get a New Pet?
Some people find that getting a new pet soon after the loss of a companion animal helps with the healing process. It allows them to focus on the positive emotions of the new companion rather than dwelling on the loss. It’s best to give yourself time, however, and not to make any abrupt decisions. Pets have their own personalities, and you shouldn’t expect a new pet to replace a previous one.
Once you give yourself the time that you need to grieve, you may feel ready for a new pet. Most people know when they are ready, and you should trust your instincts.
If you think that you aren’t ready or that you may never be ready for a new pet, that’s OK too. Some people fear losing another companion or feel like getting a new pet is somehow disloyal. Give yourself time and don’t make any decisions until you’re ready. You may find that, after a period of mourning, you’re ready to share your heart and your home again with a new companion.