Grief is the normal and natural response to the loss of someone or something. As loss is universal, we cannot go through life without being touched by grief. When grieving, one is said to be in a state of bereavement.
The loss of a loved one is one of the greatest sorrows that can occur in life. When someone we love – such as a beloved pet – dies, the loss can cause intense grief and sorrow. Given that so many people consider their pets as companions, best friends, and even members of the family, this grief is normal and understandable.
The loss of a pet is often just as difficult, if not more so, than losing a human family member. Our relationships with animals are remarkably intimate and mutually supportive, as they love us ‘no strings attached,’ hold our secrets, and accept us ‘just as we are.’ When our daily routines include pets, the loss can be profoundly disruptive to our sense of home, sense of safety, sense of purpose, and sense of identity.
The best way to manage your grief is to be reassured that these reactions are normal and to let them run their natural course. Be kind to yourself as you prepare for the ‘new normal’ of a life without your beloved pet. Just as it took time to build the relationship with your pet, it will take time to get used to your pet not being there.
- Receive support from others. Spend time with supportive family, friends, and co-workers who understand, who will listen to your stories and feelings without judgment. Talking with others can help you come to terms with your loss. Consider joining a pet loss support group, in your locale or on-line (https://www.rainbowsbridge.com), to help you work through your loss. Read books on pet loss. These are published regularly and include stories of others’ experiences.
- Find comfort in routines and play. All creatures, whether human or animal, find comfort in the daily routines that give our days form and focus. Maintaining the normal daily schedule for meals, bedtime, and playtime is an important part of coping with a life-changing loss. Some people find that changes in routine, or to their living environment, to be helpful, to avoid pet-related ‘moments.’ This may mean putting away pet-related items or rearranging the furniture.
- Keep moving. Keep active. Engage in activities that keep you busy, are creative, or social, such as cooking, carpentry, gardening, sports, yoga, dance, walks, and exercise classes, as these can lift your spirits. This is not necessarily easy to do when you are feeling sad, so if needed, enlist the help of your friends and relatives to keep you up and moving. If you feel ready, volunteer your time and energy into an animal welfare organization. Caring for animals in need of your comfort can be, in itself, comforting. And remember to care for and love the other pets in your home.
- Allow yourself a small break from the sadness every day. Find a source of light within the dark. Laughter serves as a healing salve for the heart, and music can soothe the soul, enabling you to cope with, and work through, your grief.
- Continue your relationship through memories. Your memories allow your pet to live on in you. Embracing these memories can be a slow, and at times, painful process that takes time, but it can help you work through your pain, sorrow and grief as well as hold onto the happy, fun, loving moments you had with your pet. Be creative in memory making and keeping. Recall the times shared, and write an anecdotal story, a poem, or a tribute, or even a letter to your pet. Journal to understand your thoughts and feelings with greater clarity. Look at past photos and craft an album or scrapbook. Draw or paint a work of art. Write a song. Such creations can transform your grief into a meaningful expression of the love you feel for your pet and provide great comfort months, and even years, later.
- Memorialize your pet. Have a funeral or memorial service to honor your pet’s life. Should you choose to bury your pet in a cemetery or a memorial garden, decorate your pet’s headstone. Should you choose to cremate your pet, you can place your pet’s ashes on a mantelpiece, or bury or scatter them in a meaningful place. There are other things that you can do as well to memorialize your pet. Plant flowers that bloom every year for your pet (tulips, daffodils, forget-me-nots). Light a candle in your pet’s memory. Keep a lock of hair in a locket or Christmas ornament. Keep your pet’s tags on your key chain. Ask your vet to make a clay paw-print of your pet. Make a memorial contribution to a local rescue group, Humane Society, or SPCA.
- Search for meaning. Find meaning in your relationship with your pet: What does your pet mean to you? Why? What lessons have you learned from your time together? It is natural to question the meaning and purpose of your pet in your life. You may also question your beliefs regarding pets and the afterlife. Many people around you will have their own beliefs. It will be important during this time for you to find the answers right for you and your distinct and personal beliefs.
- Bring a new pet into your life. As you move through your grief, you will shift from focusing on the emptiness, loss and sadness to the happier memories of your pet. When the time is right, you may consider bringing a new pet into your life. This is not a ‘replacement pet,’ but rather a new and unique relationship on its own!