A Practical Guide To Helping Families Cope & Move Forward
Losing anyone we love is a devastating experience. Losing a beloved family pet is just as heartbreaking, though society may not always acknowledge how much it affects those suffering the loss. While we all experience these emotions differently, there are many universal threads in how we move through this loss.
Coping with losing a pet can be difficult, there are ways to work through these difficult emotions without feeling completely overwhelmed. With this guide, we’ll explore why grief matters and outline some of the best strategies to help you through this challenging time.
The Role Our Pets Play
For many of us, our pets are not “just a cat” or “just a dog.” They are a part of the family, cherished companions, and an important part of our lives.
A CHERISHED COMPANION
When your beloved pet is a companion, losing them is losing your comfort with their presence. This can be compounded if they were your only companion or if they were a working or service animal you relied on for support.
Without that outside connection to the world, you make feel isolated and lost. Humans are inherently social creatures; we need these links to feel grounded and well-balanced. Many isolated seniors or those with disabilities rely on pets as part of their social network.
A MEMBER OF THE FAMILY
For many, pets are family. With their shorter lifespan and dependence on their owners for care, it’s easy to see why many view their pets akin to a child. They are part of our daily routine, as we establish set times to feed, walk, or spend time with them during the day.
They may be the first playmate to our children, the first 'child' to newlyweds, a best friend we grew up. Our pets are treasured members of the family and their loss has a tremendous impact on each individual member.
Normalizing Grief After Losing A Pet
Intense pain and overwhelming grief are normal emotions to experience when we lose a pet of any kind. While some might minimize these feelings, that is unfair to belittle the intensity of them to those experiencing them. Grief after losing a pet should be normalized as much as any other kind of loss because pets represent many things to their owners.
Many times, our grief is tangled with guilt in these moments. Pets depend on us for everything, further complicating our feelings when they pass. We can lose ourselves with this guilt, especially if our die passes under unforeseeable circumstances. If this is the case, we must be kind to ourselves and should receive kindness from others.
Ultimately, pet owners deserve recognition for their grief.
The 5 Stages Of Grief
Experiencing grief is universal. However, how we experience it is not. We all manage grief in our own ways and likely develop individual coping mechanisms. Yet there are many shared processes through this time, no matter if you’ve lost a loved one, family members, or your beloved pet.
In 1969, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross outlined the process of grief in her book On Death and Dying. Her work would provide the basis for how we understand grief – and the grieving process – for decades to come.
Known by the acronym DABDA, this model has helped millions of people understand and work through their feelings.
While research has progressed to a more nuanced understanding of why this may be, these are the emotions you are most likely to experience after someone you love has died. Read more about the five stages of grief and what to expect below.
STAGE 1 - DENIAL
As the first stage of grief, denial is often the initial reaction we have to death or other tragedy. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed after getting the initial news; there may be too much to process without getting lost in the repercussions or consequences.
It often manifests very similar to shock. You feel numb with disbelief. You can’t imagine a world where this is true. Often, you’ll find yourself in a state of altered reality, telling yourself that there’s “been a mistake” or “this couldn’t happen to them.”
You feel that if it is true, you can’t process how to move on from this moment. This just can’t be real.
This is necessary. It lets your brain slowly process the truth of the situation and protects you by giving you a chance to slow down enough to come to terms with what has happened.
STAGE 2 - ANGER
Anger comes swiftly and often without warning. It comes when we realize the truth of what has happened – that we have lost something important to us forever – and can no longer deny it to ourselves.
You’ll look for someone – or something – to blame for this. You may direct your anger towards a friend or family member, yourself, or even the deceased.
It is completely normal to be angry at any of these things. Anger is necessary. It holds you to reality and grounds you to something real.
It’s important to let yourself feel anger at this stage. It feels endless and impossible to escape but it’s an important part of grief. If you express your anger without repressing it or pushing it down, you’ll find yourself healing more quickly.
STAGE 3 - BARGAINING
When something bad happens, we often try to make deals with a higher power in exchange for sparing us from the loss we’ve just experienced. We make promises and bargains that perpetuate a false hope that we can fix the problem.
When you find yourself experiencing this intense helplessness and vulnerability, it’s normal to seek out some sense of control to help you find meaning in the loss. For many, bargaining is accompanied by guilt. We become lost in a cycle of “what if..” or “If only...” statements that present alternate outcomes for a situation that’s already passed.
We want to go back and time and avoid the loss at any cost. Losing anyone, whether a person or a pet, hurts. We’d do anything to make that stop.
Much of the bargaining phase comes out of this avoidance. If we can make a deal of some kind, even if it sounds absurd, then we may be able to make the pain go away. Unfortunately, not deal or bargain will help us through our pain, despite how much we’d like that to be the case.
STAGE 4 - DEPRESSION
When bargaining fails and we lose hope, depression often settles in its place. Depression is the most common emotion associated with grief – for good reason, as it the most present emotion during the entire process.
However, depression may not be present immediately in the aftermath of your loss. It can creep up on us slowly as we pass through the other stages.
Depression is the emptiness inside us when we come to terms with the fact that we are living in a reality without our deceased. Everything can again become overwhelming but this time for a completely different reason.
We just want to withdraw from everything until it no longer hurts, even if that means cutting out the people who care about us most.
STAGE 5 - ACCEPTANCE
The last stage in grieving acceptance is finding peace after your loss. Acceptance should not be mistaken for an absence of loss or even being “less sad” after surviving the death of someone close to you.
Many people never feel okay after their loss. You may always feel sadness or grief when you think of what you’ve lost, but it isn’t as overwhelming or all-consuming as it once had been.
Finding acceptance means you’re ready to learn how to enjoy life once again. It’s characterized by having more good days than bad ones, leaving your anger and depression behind.
When we can see a light at the end of the tunnel, we can re-connect with others, make new emotional connections, and start to focus on our needs.
One important thing to remember is that grief is not linear. You may experience each of these emotions in the exact order described here. You may experience them completely out of order, shifting back and forth between stages. However, it is just as likely that you may only experience a few of them.
However you work through your grief, know that your emotions are important and not something to hide or feel ashamed to experience.
7 Strategies For Coping With The Loss Of A Pet
The most important thing you can do after the loss of a pet is to simply let yourself feel your grief. Permitting yourself to grieve can be difficult, especially if you feel as if you’re overreacting (you aren’t) or if you have other responsibilities (that shouldn’t detract from taking care of yourself and your emotions).
It’s just as important to take care of yourself and learn to cope with your loss. It isn’t easy, nor are there any shortcuts in the process. However, there are many coping mechanisms to help you through the pain.
Here are seven strategies to help you survive your loss.
1. EXPLAIN THE LOSS TO CHILDREN
If your family includes children, you will inevitably need to explain the scope of what has happened to them. Losing a pet is difficult for anyone but it can be especially difficult for children, whatever the circumstances might be.
For the most part, children grieve more deeply than adults. They take longer to recover from loss largely because – and this is especially true for the younger ones – they may not entirely understand death. That doesn’t mean they are incapable of understanding these deeper feelings of loss but it does mean you may have to take extra care to help them with the process.
Talk to them on their terms.
Approach conversations with your child carefully. Don’t treat your child as if they are incapable of understanding what has happened. Do try to meet them at their level. You cannot explain death to a three-year-old the same way you can with a child who is nine or ten. Children are smart; they pick up on emotions around them, including the unpleasant ones. Without context for those emotions, they can become unsettled or uneasy.
Validate their feelings.
Tell your children that being sad is okay. Too often, we expect children to “suck it up” and behavior “appropriately for your age.” Doing so will only stunt their ability to understand and work through their feelings. It can lead to further issues as they grow. It’s far better to acknowledge their feelings and let them know they can feel them without facing punishment or any consequences, even if they do act out. Be prepared to give them extra affection and physical comfort, even if they don’t immediately ask for it. Grieving children may be scared or insecure after they lose a beloved pet.
Include them in your plans.
Death is scary. It can be even scarier when you don’t know what’s happening or what to expect in the aftermath of the loss. For children, this can mean they’ll become more anxious and uncertain when adults around them are making decisions they aren’t privy to. Include your child in whatever you do, whether that means cremation, burial, or something else.
Help them memorialize their pet.
The best way to help kids process things is by letting them be an active part. Sometimes, making something for the pet can be a cathartic act for them. Encourage them to draw pictures of their pet, perhaps even focusing on a favorite memory or what they loved most. Depending on the time of year, it may help to craft a seasonal decoration – like a Christmas ornament – commemorating the pet to be displayed for special occasions.
2. WRITE DOWN YOUR FEELINGS
Sometimes, words can’t adequately express the depth of emotions we feel. You may struggle to say the words or share your feelings out loud. You may even feel like your thoughts are overwhelming and you can’t focus on anything else.
In times like this, you may find solace in expressing yourself through some form of writing. Writing helps us focus our thoughts and feelings into a format that helps us make sense of our emotions.
Here are the most common methods for working through grief by writing:
Journaling. This is one of the easiest ways to start writing. Simply start – or end – your day by taking some time to write out whatever comes to mind for you that day. Creating a record of your daily feelings, even if it’s simply a few short sentences, will give you a way to look back and see how much progress you’ve made.
Poetry. The best thing about poetry is that it doesn’t need to be traditionally cohesive to be important to you. You simply work with the flow of your emotions and what you’re trying to say. If you’d like to try and don’t know where to start, there are many free tutorials available online to help you begin the process.
Short Stories. You can take your memories of your beloved pet and turn them into stories you’d like to tell others someday when you feel ready to relive them. When you’re in the bargaining phase grief, or even struggling through anger, you may even want to write out your wishes in a longer form.
Letter to Your Pet. This is the most common coping mechanism for anyone experiencing a loss. Writing a letter to our deceased loved ones is a way to feel our connection with them and focus on the positive emotions
Drawing. While not technically writing, art can be just as valid to express yourself. You may find it more freeing or more cathartic than writing. Memorializing your pet in a sketch or painting is another great way to create a keepsake you’ll have forever.
Writing - or any other creative art - can help you track your emotions beyond the day-to-day. Eventually, you will be able to look back and see your emotional progress through this difficult time.
3. PLAN A GATHERING WITH OTHERS
One of the best things you can do after losing an important furry friend is to turn to your friends and family. While experiencing grief is a very individualized problem, humans share grief in communities. This is the perfect time to call upon the people who mean the most and bring them together.
Finding a support system is incredibly important while you are grieving, especially in the first few days and weeks after your pet has passed. No one wants to be alone during this period and sharing your grief allows you to let out the emotions in a healthy way.
This can be as simple as calling a friend to go out for a cup of coffee or having lunch together. It can be a chance to slip out for an evening and visit your extended family, getting away from your house if you feel lonely. You can even host a small gathering at home to share stories and your memories of your pet.
This may also be a good opportunity to plan a funeral for your pet. While some might argue that funerals should only be reserved for humans, that just isn’t true. Holding a funeral – or even a memorial – for your pet is more common than you think.
Funerals are important rituals to us; they have been for at least the last 100,000 years. But humans aren’t the only beings we’ve buried over the years. It’s no secret that the ancient Egyptians mummified domesticated cats. They were often buried with jewelry or other items.
Domesticated dog burials have also been found associated with the indigenous people of the Americas for thousands of years. The oldest pet burial discovered at this time dates back at least 9,500 years old with the burial of a tabby cat on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. This feline was found buried not too far away from human remains.
In context, your desire to hold a memorial for your pet isn’t all that unusual. It’s simply part of the human grieving process.
4. MEMORIALIZE YOUR PET
When we lose someone we love, we hold onto our memories of them. We find ways to make those memories last. No one is ready to let go so soon after a loss and finding a way to commemorate your pet can help you keep those good memories alive.
Hold a funeral.
As we’ve mentioned above, funerals are a good way to help you come to terms with losing your furry friend. You can do so alone or invite others along to share the moment. It can be as elaborate or as simple as you’d like.
In the end, this ritual is to help you come to terms with their death; you can do hold whatever ceremony is best for you. Holding a funeral can also help the children in your life learn how to process their grief.
Create a photo keepsake.
Photo engraved jewelry is becoming more commonly widespread and creates a visual way to remember a pet. You can have your favorite pet photo engraved on metal forever as a pendant, capturing those moments that mattered the most.
These pendants are available in an assortment of different shapes – hearts to bones to rectangles to dog tag styles – and generally come in different metal plating as well as color photo options. Ideal for every member of the family, they provide a beautiful way to connect with your pet memories.
Think outdoors with memorial plaques and stones.
If you do decide to bury your pet, you might want to consider adding a permanent marker for their grave. Many companies specialize in small grave markers or larger plaques for pet memorials. Most offer customization for their products which can range from a simple name and date to photo-engraving and customized text options as well.
Memorial garden stones are just as popular while still maintaining a natural feel to your outdoor surroundings. The plaque doesn’t necessarily need to accompany a grave. It can go in their favorite spot or a place you frequent.
Choose a special urn for your pet's resting place.
While burying your pet might be preferred, it isn’t always feasible to find the proper resting spot for them. If that’s the case, an alternative option is to pick out an urn for their cremains. While they’ve been around for centuries, pet urns have become increasingly popular over the years.
You can find them almost anywhere online and they come in many shapes and sizes. It’s easy to find something plain or more ornate, depending on your budget and your preferences. It makes take some time, but you are sure to find a custom and often personalized option that captures the essence of your pet that you can display at home.
Consider cremation jewelry.
If you’d like a smaller keepsake – and one you can keep with you at all times – there are other choices to consider. Cremation jewelry is less traditional than an urn, but it has several advantages if you lack the space for a permanent place to put a larger item.
Designed to hold a pinch of cremains in an airtight container, cremation pendants are discrete, stylish pieces that can be worn anywhere. Pet cremation jewelry can also be engraved with your pet’s name or other information. In all, they are small, intimate pieces of jewelry that you can wear or display with other keepsakes.
Plant a tree.
Did you enjoy spending time outdoors with your pet? Going for walks or maybe even watching them enjoy the sunshine on a warm summer day? Perhaps you want to “Go Green” and you’d like to combine that desire with your memory into a special commemoration.
It might be time for you to step outside and get your hands dirty by planting a tree in their memory! Most pets had a favored location in the backyard or near the house. Wouldn’t it be nice to look out your window and see the sapling you planted just for them in that spot?
A living tribute.
If you don’t live in an area where that’s possible, you can choose A Living Tribute. This website plants a tree in memory of your deceased pet directly in a US National Forest or Park.
These honorary tree plantings include a personalized sympathy card that includes information about where your tree was planted. It’s an excellent option a sustainable, long-lived memorial for man’s best friend.
Make a donation.
This may be the perfect time to donate to an animal-related cause of your choosing. If you’d like to help animals in general, donating to your local Humane Society is always appreciated!
You can check out the website for your local adoption center to see what supplies or enrichment material they need. Many times, shelters need items you wouldn’t immediately consider! If you think you are ready, you can also think about volunteering your time to help walk dogs, clean cages or spend time socializing cats or other smaller animals.
Put together a scrapbook.
While these can be a time-intensive project to complete, creating a scrapbook or shadowbox will pay off in the creation of a unique and highly personalized item that you’ll have forever.
They’re also a good opportunity to gather physical reminders of your pet – collars, tags, favorite items, and photographs – into a single keepsake you can share and keep forever. It’s a great way to work through that grief in a productive manner that gives you a physical reminder of your pet.
5. MAINTAIN YOUR ROUTINE
Sticking to a routine in times of emotional turmoil and stress is incredibly important to your health. When you’re at the end of your emotional or physical reserves, it’s very easy to slide into bad habits and stop looking after your own needs while you grieve.
Spend time with friends and family; it can be a well-needed distraction when you are feeling at your lowest. Make sure you’re eating properly, trying to get enough sleep, and being as active as you can. Those things will help you cope with your loss while ensuring that you don’t neglect your self-care in the process.
You may have others who rely on you that need reassurance and care during this time. It makes it doubly important that you keep to a schedule and take care of yourself.
Maintaining a routine can be especially important if you have other pets. Animals can experience the loss of a household member too. They may be grieving for their friends and companions in much the same way. It’s important to spend time with any surviving pets. Not only for yourself, though it will certainly help you to have something to focus on, but it can help them, too. Make sure you’re still feeding them at the same time, taking them on walks, and giving them extra affection.
6. LEAN ON YOUR SUPPORT SYSTEM
Developing a support system after the loss of a pet can make all the difference as you learn to cope with it. It’s often the most overlooked part of the process, as many times we don’t want to be seen as a burden or fear mocking from others. We cannot stress this enough – Ask For Help.
Reach out to people in your life that matter the most and ask them to be your ally. We all need someone to listen to us when grief feels overwhelming and we need to let it out somehow. There’s no shame in asking for help. It’s something we all need.
If you feel that you cannot find someone in your immediate circle of friends and family to help you, then seek an outside ally. There are many resources available online to help connect you to someone who understands your loss.
Your veterinarian or human society may know additional, local resources you can reach out to for in-person assistance. Therapy is always a valid option as well.
Depression is common for those experiencing grief and it can be difficult to tackle without help, especially if you’ve never felt like this before. Many counselors specialize in grief; they help you find clarity and lead you through your grief more quickly than doing it entirely by yourself.
Finding someone to talk to about your loss keeps you from bottling up your emotions. It helps you understand your feelings and put words to how your grief affects you.
7. GIVE YOURSELF TIME
There are no shortcuts to grief. You can’t control how you feel or how long you’ll feel that way. Everyone grieves along a personal timeline. You shouldn’t feel pressured to move forward until you are ready to do so. It will only make it harder to find peace. That doesn’t mean you should allow your emotions to control you or overtake your life.
However, you should allow yourself the time to feel your emotions without the need to suppress them or, even worse, pretend that everything is fine when it’s anything but the truth. Be patient with yourself even when you feel overwhelmed because that will ultimately help you move through grief more quickly. There’s no set timetable for mourning a loss; there’s no such thing as grieving incorrectly, either.
Set aside time for yourself if you need it. Slow down, breathe, do meditation, read a book, or just sit and be still. Give yourself time to decompress without forcing yourself to do everything all at once.
Part of this also means not letting anyone else tell you how you should feel. Grief is a very personal experience and it doesn’t matter how someone else feels or what they would do in the situation.
Losing a pet can feel like you’ve lost a best friend. You can feel exactly what you’re feeling without apologizing or curbing that for anyone else.
You are the one going through a loss. No one, not even yourself, can tell you that what you are feeling is wrong.
Don’t make any big decisions. After suffering a loss, we may feel the urge to do something in a misguided belief it will make us feel better. Often, we regret these decisions in hindsight once we’ve had time to think it through. There’s no hurry to donating or tossing out any food, toys, or bedding. They can wait until you’re ready to process them.
Don’t rush into adopting a new puppy or kitten immediately, either. Grieve your loss fully before considering bringing another pet into the household. Getting a ‘replacement’ isn’t as fulfilling as waiting until you’re ready to bring home a new best friend.
You have time. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it.
Moving Forward & Remembering Your Cherished Pet
Grief is always a difficult process. It can hit us in the most unlikely ways and during the most inopportune moments. Losing a family member – even those with furs, feathers, or scales – can hit you in the most unexpected ways. When you are feeling overwhelmed, it’s always important to know that this is natural and part of the process.
The best thing you can do is focus on self-care and the healing process. With the right tools, you can learn how to cope with your grief in a meaningful way that will bring you on the path to healing from your loss. Even in the darkest times, remember that things will get better. You just need to take the time – and the right coping mechanisms – to help you through.
August 26, 2020 by Jeri K. Augustus