Pet Loss: 4 Steps for Coping
We’re dog people. When Dave and I were young newlyweds and bought our first home, we knew that the next step in completing our family included adopting a dog. Ripley was a 95 pound, wild-eyed black Labrador retriever with energy to spare. His previous owner taught Ripley one trick: to jump up, and using his mouth, grab beer cans off the counter. Or out of your hand. With no warning or need for a command. He only did this with beer cans, not soda cans. I have no idea how he knew the difference, maybe it was the smell? Either way, he performed this feat as often as he could, which resulted in much spilled beer in our kitchen whenever we had social gatherings.
As untrained as Ripley was, he was our first baby, the love of our lives. The first time we brought him to the lake, he leapt out of the car, ran straight for the water, dove in, then swam to the center of the lake, like he was chasing an invisible duck. He swam so far, that eventually Dave had to rescue him with the rowboat. Ripley seemed intent on swimming until he exhausted himself and drowned. Common sense was not his strongest trait. We lived on an open 12 acre field, which gave Ripley lots of room to roam. The downside was the property was not fenced. Thankfully, for many years Ripley loved food more than straying too far from the house. Until one day he chased a cat (we think) nearly a quarter mile, through neighbors’ yards and into the main road. At night. Did I mention he was a black lab? The driver of the car never even saw Ripley run into the dark street.
We were devastated. Dave stayed up until 2 a.m. digging a hole under a tree we planted on our property. Through the tears, he mumbled “never again, never again.” We open ourselves up to vulnerable place when we love our pets so intensely. For many years, Dave would not even discuss getting another dog. “We should have prevented this! Why didn’t we get a fence? Or even a long leash?” The guilt and remorse from feeling responsible for Ripley’s death was just too painful to bear.
Thirteen years. That’s how long we mourned, until we were finally ready to invite a new fur-baby into our home.
I don’t mean to be a downer, but the reality is that our furry family members will likely not outlive us. Whether you lost your pet to an accident or old age, the grieving process can hit you like a runaway truck. Usually we are not prepared for the level of loss. The death of your pet can feel even more devastating than when a human relative dies. In no way do I mean to minimize the loss of a human loved one. But pet loss is very different.
We love our pets unconditionally and they love us back even more. Our relationships with our pets have no baggage, no expectations. Unlike our all-too-human relationships, pets don’t let us down, say the wrong thing, or betray us. We rely on them for emotional support and companionship, and their presence is reliable, predictable, soothing, and constant. If we are home, they are there with us, loving us without reservation, relying on us for their every need.
As much as we love and honor our pets, and share cute videos of them on Facebook, our society does not recognize the seriousness of pet loss. As a matter of fact, there is a term for this phenomenon: disenfranchised grief. Those two or three bereavement days offered by your employer will not cover the loss of your pet. You will probably not receive flowers, sympathy cards, or casseroles. There is no public ceremony or standard ritual to honor your beloved pet.
When we return from a long workday, and they are not there, the gaping hole in our lives is felt. For a very long time. Much longer than your friends and colleagues will realize.
Here are four tips to help you cope with the loss of your pet:
1. Honor your pet with a special ritual in their memory
I recommend that you create your own goodbye ritual soon after your pet’s death. This does not have to be an elaborate “funeral,” but instead can be as simple as an hour set aside for your family to come together to share their memories about your pet and how lives are forever changed from having known and loved that pet. Often, folks create a makeshift memorial set-up on a table, with a photo and their pet’s personal items, such as a collar, a favorite toy, or even a food bowl. Honoring your pet with a brief ceremony will bring legitimacy and finality to your experience. This exercise will also allow each family member to feel comforted by acknowledging the significance of the loss to the whole family.
2. Memory keeping
We have a black lab figurine Christmas ornament that we take out every December. We still honor Ripley's memory even now, 19 years after his death. Think about what sort of memory object best represents you pet and how you would like to continue thinking of them. This can be as simple as a photo, a paw print on an index card, or custom memorial jewelry with your pet’s name and likeness. Be sure to keep this memory object somewhere that is easily accessible so you can pull it out when want to remember your connection. In time, you will find the balance: at times that memory object might trigger further bouts of despair and at other times it provides much needed comfort in gentle remembering.
Becoming aware of the “trigger” situations, when grief feels most overwhelming, is a solid step toward learning which coping skills will help you the most during your time of deep grief. For some folks, walking the same path you normally walked your dog every day is comforting and filled with lovely memories. For others, experiencing the sights and sounds of that familiar environment is just too difficult. Your family members might not want to talk about your pet, to avoid inflicting more pain. But then the concern is feeling like everyone has forgotten them. Don’t be afraid to continue telling stories about your pet. If your family is not open to discussing your pet, find a trusted friend, an understanding lover of pets.
3. Allow time for grief
Allow yourself plenty of time for grieving. You might find that the tears come every day for awhile. Perhaps every time you return home from work you experience the loss once again as you walk in the door, and your pet is not there with tail wagging in joyful greetings.
Should you get another pet right away? This is a very personal decision and depends largely on how “right away” you mean. Typically, I recommend waiting a few months at least, to allow yourself to move through the grief process prior to considering a new addition to the family. During times of deep grief, we should avoid making big decisions about any serious commitments and life changes. And choosing a pet is a huge decision with long lasting consequences. You want to be thinking clearly, relying less on emotion and more on practical considerations. This is not easy to do when working through the early stages of grief.
4. Reach out for support
Losing a pet can feel very isolating. Very few of your friends and relatives will offer you the ongoing support that you need. Socially, pet loss is not acknowledged the same as human loss, but the effects are similar. Do not feel pressured to “just get over it” if you are struggling. Instead, reach out for help: ask your veterinarian if they know of a local pet loss support group. Talk to friends who have experienced a similar loss. Look for online pet loss support groups. Seek counseling from an experienced grief therapist.
Our pets are vitally important members of our families and we would not want it any other way. I’ll never forget Ripley and his wild antics. The pain of losing a beloved pet is a small price to pay when we consider the gifts our fur-babies bring to our lives.
About the Author
Pam is your local grief counseling specialist and founder of Johnston Integrative Counseling. If you are looking for grief resources, including individual or group counseling, contact Pam today by email or phone: 919-912-5736.