WHEN YOUR PET DIES
One of life’s great treasures is the relationship that human beings develop with their pets. Not everyone has this opportunity; indeed it isn’t something everyone wants. But for those who do, pets become our companions, and often substitute children. A family pet may be a dog, cat, hamster, horse, donkey, bird, fish or any other creature with whom we develop a special relationship.
Many of our pets live with us in our homes. They may sleep with us. They are constantly at our side on shopping trips, vacations or daily walks. They seem to understand us. They accept us the way we are and even keep secrets! We learn to know if they are not feeling well. We understand when they are reminding us that it is time to eat or time for their daily walk!
When a family pet dies, the experience of grief is similar to mourning the death of a person we have loved. It is a significant loss that should not be ignored and we do well to pay attention to this loss before beginning to move on with our lives.
What you may experience.
Sadness: The relationship you had with your pet was unique and you may be surprised initially that you are overcome with sadness. Since we cannot always be in control of our pets, often they die tragically and this increases our sadness.
Loneliness: You will miss the friendly greeting when you come home, their presence around the house, the daily routine of having them with you. While many pet lovers will experience a deep loneliness, those who live alone may find the loneliness overwhelming.
Guilt: If the death was tragic, you may feel responsible for your pet’s death and guilty for letting it happen. Perhaps you didn’t recognize that your pet was sick and feel guilty for not receiving help earlier. One unique source of grief pet owners experience is around the issue of euthanizing our pets. For the most part, when humans are sick and dying, we let life run its course. With our pets, we are often left with the responsibility of making the decision that enough is enough. This is often made with the advice of your veterinarian who will help you make the right decision. No matter how carefully you made the decision, you may experience a certain amount of guilt.
Anger: There are many reasons why you may be angry. You may be angry with your veterinarian for not being able to keep your pet alive, the driver of the car who killed your pet, or the illness that ended your pet’s life. Depending on the circumstances of your life, you may feel this is one more loss among many that you are experiencing. Perhaps you have had a spouse, parent, sibling or a child die recently. You may be angry that life is dealing you this additional blow.
Unsupported in your grief: People who do not have pets often don’t understand the significance of the death of a pet. They may even tell you that you are overreacting. You may be angry with these people for not giving you the support you need. As we have already said, the emotions following the death of a pet are similar to those we experience when someone we love dies. The journey through grief is also similar. The following will give you some ideas for dealing with your grief.
HELPING YOURSELF RECOVER
Give yourself permission to grieve.
Be patient with yourself and the process. Don’t let others tell you how you should be feeling and don’t let those who don’t understand tell you to “get over it!” Your grief is your grief and it is a normal and healthy part of living to mourn the loss of someone or something important in your life. If you feel like crying, then cry. Take time to feel your pain and express it.
Create an appropriate way to memorialize your pet.
This will, of course, be determined by where you live. Your pet may be cremated and then ashes buried in a garden or scattered in your pet’s favourite place. It may be that your pet’s body can be buried on your property where you live. You may want to create some sort of ritual for the time of the burial. A rock, a tree or bench may mark the place where your pet is buried. There are pet cemeteries in some communities and your veterinarian or local funeral director will be able to give you that information.
Find someone with whom you can talk.
Don’t isolate yourself from others. You need their support and comfort. Your friends who have pets will understand. Don’t try to be “brave” with other family members. Remember that they are also grieving the death of this significant family member. You may find it helpful to ask your veterinarian or local funeral director for referral to a bereavement counsellor or pet loss support group.
Involve the children in the family.
The death of a family pet is often a “teaching moment” for the children. It gives adults an opportunity to teach children that for “everything under the sun… there is a time to be born and a time to die.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1) Be honest with children. You may have the opportunity to prepare them for the death, but above all, be honest. When the death occurs, tell the children the pet has died. Don’t tell them the pet has “gone away” or worse still, that the pet is “missing”. When we involve children, we do them a great favour, since we will be preparing them for the inevitable death of a loved person of their family.
A pet as small as a goldfish may be the first opportunity a child has to learn about caring for another living creature. When the fish dies, it may be a significant loss for the child. Encourage the child to cry, to express feelings and to ask the inevitable questions about death. Children often have insights adults are missing and may have the perfect idea for what to do to memorialize the pet.
It is usually not a good idea to rush into getting a replacement for this pet.
Pets, like people, are individuals and can’t be replaced. It isn’t helpful to try to get an exact replica of the one who has died. It will take time for you to adjust to the fact that this beloved pet has died. You may take time to dispose of your pet’s belongings. When you feel ready, remove your pet’s feeding dishes and bed. You may decide to keep items like a tag or collar. Do what you feel like, when you feel like it. When this transition has taken place, you may begin to think about getting a new pet. But you will never replace the one who has just died.
With every death or significant loss, it is important to take time to grieve. It is, however, equally important to begin the process of moving on with life. The memories of this pet will be with you for the rest of your life. Let the memories comfort you. Let your relationship with this pet be the foundation upon which you will build a relationship with a new pet if you decide to bring another into your life. When you are ready, a new relationship can be developed and a new life created with another pet with whom you can hopefully share the next few years of your life.
By John Kennedy Saynor
Getting a New Pet
When your pet dies, how soon should you get a new one? Until recently, the standard answer has been “right away!” That may not always
be the best advice, however: Obtaining a new pet before you have had time to work through your grief can cause problems for both you and the pet.
So when is the right time? There is no single answer to that question, because everyone experiences grief in their own way. For some, the loneliness of an empty house makes grieving more difficult, and a new pet can help the process. Others, however, may feel resentful toward a pet obtained too soon.
The time to obtain a new pet is when you have worked through your grief sufficiently to be confident that you can look forward to new relationships, rather than backward at your loss. For some people, that might be a matter of days or weeks; for others, it might be months or years. Regardless of when you choose to obtain a new pet, however, the following suggestions can help you ease the transition and make the new relationship more rewarding for you, your family
Ten Tips on Choosing a New Pet
Don’t make a hasty decision. Give yourself time to think. Don’t let anyone rush you into a decision or pressure you into making a choice that isn’t right for you. (If it isn’t right for you, it won’t be right for the pet either!) Also, don’t let a well-meaning friend or relative force the decision on you by getting you a new pet before you are ready.
Don’t think of the new pet as a “replacement” for your previous pet. You don’t replace relationships; you build new ones. Your new pet will be a companion with whom you build an entirely new set of memories and experiences.
Do look for a pet that is in some way different from your previous pet. If possible, select a different breed or sex. Avoid obtaining a “lookalike” pet, because if your new pet looks like your previous pet, it is easy to be disappointed when it doesn’t act like that pet. Consider a pet with different colorings or markings from your previous pet.
Do research your choice carefully. Shelters are deluged with pets who were selected unwisely and subsequently “dumped.” Make certain the breed, size, sex, behavior, and needs of your new pet are appropriate for your lifestyle. Avoid the temptation to adopt the first animal you see to “fill the void.”
Do involve all family members in the decision to obtain a new pet. In particular, consider the needs and feelings of your children. Children build strong attachments to pets, and may feel that giving their love to a new pet is “disloyal” to the previous pet. Make certain all members of the family have had a chance to work through their individual grieving process. Involve everyone in discussions of what sort of pet to obtain. If possible, let your children help you select a new pet.
Don’t give your new pet the same name (or nickname) as your previous pet.
Don’t expect your new pet to be just like the one you lost. Don’t expect the new pet to do the same things your previous pet did, respond in the same ways, or have the same characteristics. Instead, enjoy your new pet’s individual behaviors, responses, and characteristics as they develop.
Don’t compare your new pet to your previous pet. After many happy years with an animal companion, it is easy to forget that, when it was a puppy or kitten, it, too, was destructive, disobedient, noisy, or unhousetrained. Your new pet will soon grow out of its “difficult” phase.
Do consider the needs of your surviving pets. Will they welcome or resent a newcomer? Some pets seem to genuinely mourn the loss of a companion, and you may find that you need to introduce a new pet simply to comfort the survivor. Remember, however, that most cats and dogs are territorial by nature, and that it will take them time to adapt to a new pet. Once you have introduced a new pet into the household, make sure your existing pets receive lots of attention.
Do consider obtaining a new pet before the loss of your previous pet. If your pet is growing old, or is ill, consider introducing a new pet into your home now. In many cases, the presence of a young and active pet has revitalized an older animal. More importantly, this avoids the problem of attempting to build a relationship with a new pet while you are still grieving for the previous pet.
Give some thought to the disposition of your pet’s belongings. Some people enjoy passing a pet’s things to a new pet; others, however, feel that such items should not be transferred. If you prefer to dispose of your pet’s possessions, consider whether a shelter might benefit from those that are in good condition.
If you’re not certain whether you’re ready for a new pet, but you need to cuddle something furry and warm, consider volunteering as a “pet cuddler” or even a foster parent to help socialize adoptable animals at your local shelter. You’ll be able to give love and receive comfort without making a commitment. And who knows? You may discover the perfect companion to share your life!
When a pet dies, grief is a normal and natural response. Never let anyone tell you that you are crazy or silly to grieve over “just an animal.” The loss of a relationship brings pain so do what you need to do to work through that pain. Cry, grieve, pound a pillow, talk to a friend or support group, conduct a memorial service that will help you pay tribute to your pet while saying goodbye. Then, when the time is right for you, you’ll be able to share your love with a new, well-chosen animal companion.
By Moira Anderson Allen, M.Ed
There is a good chance that when you have given any thought to grief, it is usually in negative terms. A woman said to me recently, “I hate feeling this way!” Most people do. Grief is such a mix of intense emotions that most people wish they could be over it within a month of the death. However, it is important to understand that recovery from the death of a beloved pet does not happen quickly. It also helps to understand what things help and what things hinder our recovery.
There is such a thing as good or bad grief. First let’s look at what is not helpful when you are grieving.
What doesn’t help?
Other problems in your life. Are there sickness, financial problems or relationship difficulties? Anything that takes up a lot of time or energy that should be going towards resolving your grief is a liability. If you can deal with some of these issues, it may be that your grief will be less threatening.
Feeling alone and abandoned. Feeling alone in your grief is quite common. Often friends don’t know what to say. You need someone to talk to. It is important not to be alone.
Multiple losses. If you have had a number of deaths or other losses, it may be difficult to sort out what or who you are mourning. If this is the case, your grieving will be more difficult.
An inability to make sense of it all. If you are unable to explain or understand the death, it will be more difficult for you. If you can put the death into perspective and make some sense out of it, it helps.
Now let’s look at what will help you move through your grief successfully.
Someone to talk to. It is important to find someone you can talk to about how you are feeling and how you are progressing. Don’t be surprised if this person isn’t in your family. They often aren’t. Bereavement Support Groups are one of the most helpful means of findings others who understand. Talking with your doctor, clergy or funeral director may also help.
Be Patient. In a world of bank machines, drive-through restaurants and the Internet, patience is a virtue many of us lack. There are still some things that don’t happen instantly. Recovery from the death of a beloved pet is one of them. Be patient with yourself. Give yourself time.
Look after yourself. Make sure you are eating properly, getting plenty of rest and exercising regularly. If you do these things you will be better able to cope with your grief. Treat yourself occasionally. Listen to your favourite music. Eat a whole box of chocolates if you feel like it! Take time to do nothing if that’s what you want to do.
Practice good grief. Don’t be afraid to cry. Express your feelings and frustrations. If you are having a bad day, just ride with your feelings. If you try to avoid them, they will be there another day. Feel sad today and tomorrow you will feel better.
Embrace your grief. Grief can be a great teacher and lead you into a new understanding of life. Feel the pain. Listen to your inner voice and gradually you will move into healing and renewal.
The following credo was written to help you understand grief, in a few words.
I believe grief is a process that involves a lot of time, energy and determination.
I won’t “get over it” in a hurry, so don’t rush me.
I believe grief is intensely personal.
This is my grief.
Don’t tell me how I should be doing it.
Don’t tell me what’s right or what’s wrong.
I’m doing it my way, in my time.
I believe grief is affecting me in many ways.
I am being affected spiritually, physically, emotionally, socially and mentally.
If I’m not acting like my old self, it’s because I’m not my old self and some days even I don’t understand myself.
I believe I will be affected in some way by this loss for the rest of my life.
As I get older, I will have new insights into what this death means to me.
My loved family member will continue to be part of my life and influence me until the day I die.
I believe I am being changed by this process.
I see life differently.
Some things that were once important to me aren’t any more.
Some things I used to pay little or no attention to are now important.
I think a new me is emerging, so don’t be surprised – and don’t stand in the way.
John Kennedy Saynor
(905) 637-5233 Burlington
(905) 272-4040 Mississauga
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(416) 782-1197 Toronto
Providing Grief Support since 1999