Many pet owners have a powerful connection with their animals. So when a pet is lost, it’s normal to be upset. Others may not be able to appreciate the nature of your loss, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of. You happen to value animals in your life – and you feel that you’ve lost a treasured part of it.
For so many pet owners, their animal is not merely a dog, cat or bunny. The animal is like extended family, so when they pass away, it’s a severe trauma that can take some time to recover from. It may be that the animal played such an unusually important part in your day-to-day life – for instance, a guide dog – that the relationship will be a difficult one to fully replace. You’ll never have exactly the same understanding with another pet (or so you feel, at the moment). You’ve lost a companion; it may feel like losing a work colleague or a partner in life. Maybe if the pet struggled with long-term illness, and achieved several recoveries, then the bond will be a particularly strong one.
Maybe you lived alone in your apartment or house, and the animal was your only company. Perhaps an avoidable accident led to your pet’s loss. Such factors can make your bereavement more intense. A feeling of guilt may be involved if, say, you were unable to identify the animal’s health problems or could not afford expensive private surgery. This can lead to feeling of anger, regret, frustration and then depression.
Finally, though, most people reach a sense of acceptance or closure. Each individual is different in their likely response. You may feel like you’ve recovered, only for those feelings of regret or loss to come back at a later stage, when you weren’t expecting it – or maybe on the pet’s birthday or an anniversary.
You cannot force your recovery. Take your time – deal with each day as it comes. Sometimes it may even take many years to reach the end of the grieving process. Don’t bottle up your feelings. It’s important that you talk to others, particularly fellow animal lovers (who can understand your perspective a little better and may sympathise more with your situation than those who don’t own or have never owned an animal). Try putting pen to paper. Express your emotions.
The biggest stumbling block is often with close friends, relatives or partners, who are not animal lovers. They may simply not understand how you can feel such strong emotions towards a pet. What you should do in this case, is try to single out individuals who have lost a pet before. This might be an old friend, distant relative, penpal or work colleague. They may have suggestions or tips for you, to help you on your way.
There is always the possibility that some people may deride your loss, or your reaction to the death of the pet. This is unfortunate. However, accept that it’s not a good idea to discuss your loss with these personalities. It is advisable to seek help outside your regular social group, if necessary. You have to recognise that immediate family and friends are out of their depth this time round. Not everybody finds fulfilment in the companionship of animals.
Depression is a normal response to loss. Like any bereavement, it takes time. Decide that you will take ownership of your own emotional mind state. You will not play the blame game and you don’t expect anybody to have all the answers – even if they can help you with some suggestions. Refuse to feel embarrassment. Why not search Google for online message boards, pet loss hotlines, or pet loss support organisations, where people openly share their story. There is an international community out there now – accessible at the click of a mouse. Use it.
Rituals may also help the process. For example, why not have a funeral, to aid you and your family in expressing your emotions. Don’t take any notice of critics who feel it’s inappropriate to hold a funeral for a lost pet – it feels right, do it. You may also want to try creating a legacy or memorial, like a tree planting in the back garden, putting together a scrap book or photo album, or something similar. Share memories. Keep it available in the living room so you can show visitors, or they are able to leaf through it if they like doing so. You can then share stories of your time together.
Don’t neglect your own health, either. This can be a stressful ordeal which burns energy. Try to sleep well and watch your diet. Get plenty of exercise to increase endorphins and keep your mood up, as far as possible. Maybe you have another pet, a survivor! If that is the case here, then strive to maintain your routine if you can. The other pets can actually experience loss, too – or they may be disturbed by your reaction. Try not to change their environment too much. Try to increase exercise and play times, which should help to invigorate your surviving pets as well as improve your own general mood as you try to get back on track. Only if you feel ready, should you contemplate buying a new pet. Try to view the addition to your family as a new beginning, rather than a ‘replacement.’
Reading recommendations might include Coping with the Death of your Beloved Animal, by Jane Matthews, which is available as a very cheap Amazon Kindle download. Goodbye, Dear Friend: Coming to Terms with the Death of a Pet, by Virginia Ironside (also stocked by Amazon) is a quality older read, first published in 1998 but given a very high average rating by the site’s reviewers.