If you’re reading this, it is likely that you, or someone you know, has lost a beloved pet. First, I want to say that I am deeply sorry for your loss and I am right here with you.
Losing a pet, a family member, often leaves us heartbroken and unsure of how to cope. They become such an integrated part of our lives that we find ourselves noticing their absence in the smallest of details. Pet loss grief, unlike other experiences of grieving a lost loved one, is misunderstood and sometimes even overlooked as “real grief.” This is a concept we call disenfranchised grief.
Disenfranchised grief is when one’s loss is not validated or recognized by others OR when the way one is experiencing and processing their grief is not considered socially acceptable. [[You can find more information about disenfranchised grief here: Disenfranchised Grief: Definition, Causes, Impact, and Coping (verywellmind.com)]]
As you can imagine, this may lead individuals to feel like they’re grieving in the wrong way, that their loss is not significant enough to be grieving, or that there is something wrong with them for grieving such a loss. However, both you and I know that the emotions, memories (both positive and negative), and associated “guilt” with the loss of a pet are absolutely real. And I’m here to tell you, everything you’re experiencing is valid.
Guilt is one of the most common emotions expressed by those who are grieving the loss of their pet. When we grieve our lost pet, we may find ourselves constantly thinking about what we could’ve, should’ve, or would’ve done in hopes of changing the outcome or, at the very least, reduced our beloved pet’s suffering. Unfortunately, most (if not all) of the “what ifs” circling our thoughts would not have changed the outcome. Carrying this so called “guilt” can actually add to our grief and make it even harder to cope with.
I’d like to present you with an idea developed by the founders of The Grief Recovery Institute, that the word “guilt” may not actually be the right word to describe what we are feeling. They say that because the word guilt implies the intent to harm, you may want to ask yourself if the things you’re feeling guilty about were done with the intent to harm your loved one. If not, it may be time to think about if guilt is the right word. In their book, The Grief Recovery Handbook, the authors suggest evaluating your feelings of guilt and instead identifying them as things you wish had been different, better, or more. In doing so, we can help relieve this false burden of guilt and, hopefully, allow ourselves to reflect on those memories without blaming ourselves for the “what ifs.” [[Side note: I highly recommend reading The Grief Recovery Handbook to help process any grief you may be experiencing]]
How do I cope with the loss of my pet?
The grieving experience is different for each loss and different for every individual. Though you and your family may have experienced the same loss, each member could be grieving in an entirely different way. Regardless of how you grieve, there are a few things you can do to help yourself with processing and cope with your loss.
We can sometimes find ourselves filling our schedules or using constant distractions to prevent ourselves from having time to reflect on our loss. While this momentary relief may be helpful, your grief will continue to be there. I understand expressing emotions can be uncomfortable at times, but allowing yourself the space and time to grieve will ultimately be beneficial for your healing. Finding a comfortable place at home or visiting one of your pet’s favorite places is a great opportunity to reflect on your grief and feel connected to your loved one.
One of the things that helped the most in my pet loss grief is continuing parts of my routine we would share together. This looked like going for morning walks and taking the same exact route we would take—stopping where we would normally stop or reflecting on memories we had on that route together. If your loss is recent, this may be an emotional experience for you and if you can only complete part of the routine, that is perfectly OK. By continuing to do some of the things you would do together, you may feel a sense of connection to your pet and the overall adjustment to change may be slightly relieved.
Expressing your emotions and thoughts in any form can be incredibly helpful in processing your grief. Whether you speak to your pet as if they were there or you write a note to them each day, continuing the connection, bond, and conversation you once had may help to alleviate some of the pain associated with their absence. I understand that when it comes to pet loss, sometimes the only one we want to comfort us is our pet. Speaking or writing to them is a great way to stay connected and give you an opportunity to express what you may not share with others.
As with any other grief, sharing our experience with others can bring us a sense of comfort and validation. Please keep in mind that not everyone will understand your grief. Find someone you trust and feel comfortable with to talk about your grief, discuss what you’re struggling to cope with, or share precious memories of your pet. Grief can be a lonely experience, but the more we can connect with others, we can realize that we are in fact, not alone. If you feel like nobody you know can be supportive during this time, it may be helpful to join a pet loss support group in your area or online (there are support groups available on different social media platforms).
Dealing with the emotions of grief is overwhelming at times. Finding or creating a physical memorial for your pet is a great way to honor them and give you a sense of comfort in their presence. Some examples of physical memorials are: shadow boxes, paintings, stuffed animals, plants/trees, necklaces, shelves with their favorite things, etc. Memorials are an opportunity for you to be creative and incorporate the uniqueness of your pet’s personality.
Things to remember:
If you’re struggling to cope with your grief or need support in processing your loss, please reach out to someone close to you or to a mental health professional who can help.
I see you. I hear you. And I understand.