6 Coping Strategies to Help You Survive the Death of Your Pet
Here's how to get the support and comfort you need
It’s been six months since Bud -- my daily companion, roommate and beloved Maine Coon cat --- suddenly and inexplicably fell ill. Despite the vet’s best efforts, he died in my arms at 3 a.m. four days after the mysterious illness took hold.
I was griefstricken and plagued by guilt. I keep going over the last few days in my head: My cat was eating and playful, so what did I miss? Should I have taken him to the vet sooner? Making matters worse were well-meaning friends who simply didn't get it. It made everything worse to hear What’s the big deal, it’s a cat or Just buy another one: There are plenty out there to adopt.
Like me, a lot of people are taken aback by the intensity of the grief they feel when they lose a pet. But such sorrow is completely normal, according to Cori Bussolari, PsyD, associate professor in the department of counseling psychology at the University of San Francisco and leader of a monthly pet grief support group at the San Francisco SPCA. “Ignoring sadness or rushing out to get a new pet may make you feel better in the short term. But grief always outs itself, no matter how hard you try to push it away.”
Navigating feelings tied to the loss of a pet may occur in phases that range from denial and anger to guilt and sadness. “We experience the very same rollercoaster of emotional ups and downs as we do after losing a mother, father or spouse,” according to Diane Pomerance, PhD, founder of the Pet Grief Counseling Program at the SPCA of Texas and author of several books on pet loss.
In certain circumstances, people even grieve the loss of a pet more intensely than they do a person, Pomerance says. “Pets are integral to our lives, especially for those who are single, elderly and childless,” says Pomerance. “The unconditional love, acceptance and devotion we get from pets are unmatched and can make the loss all the more devastating.”
The depth of grief may depend on what led to the death, according to KC Theisen, director of pet care issues at The Humane Society of the United States. “It is a different emotional process if the pet is a senior or old and sick and in declining health because we are aware of what’s coming," Theisen says.
Here are tips that Bussolari, Pomerance and Theisen say can help you through the process of grieving.
Related: When to Take a Sick Pet to the Vet
in advance for the financial toll.
A pet's death can create a financial crisis, says Theisen, with medication expenses, hefty medical bills, cremation costs and perhaps bills tied to pet hospice care, an
increasingly popular service. “Try to think in advance about the inevitable and
put money away well in advance,” Theisen says. “When the time comes, that nest
egg will alleviate a lot of stress.”
Take time to mourn. Don’t let other people tell you how to feel or when to stop grieving. If asked, tell people how you feel, says Pomerance. “I always advise people to be honest. Talk about the death. It’s an opportunity to teach others that animals are significant.”
Look for supportive friends, family and pet owners. It's important to stay connected with people who
understand your grief, even if they are not in your immediate circle of friends.
Grief support groups can be found at a local SPCA, in chat rooms on the
Internet or by calling pet loss hotlines such as
The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement (APLB).
Follow grieving rituals. Memorial services, funerals and keeping ashes after a cremation provide comfort, says Bussolari. It may ease your pain to frame pictures of your pet, make a memorial altar in your home or create an online memorial at the APLB or elsewhere.
Let your child grieve. The loss of a pet is often a child’s first experience with death. Parents should be honest and share their own grief. Find out how the kids are feeling. Avoid lying or pretending that a pet just went to sleep or ran away. Don't rush out to replace the pet. Allow your child to feel sad.
Don’t neglect your surviving pet, if you have one . Other pets, especially if they were siblings or lifetime companions, may feel sad and need extra attention, affection and time. No matter how sad you're feeling, it’s important to maintain your pet's daily routine for feeding, exercise and play.