Any pet parent who has experienced the death of a pet can attest to the severe emotional toll it takes. In fact, losing a pet affects many people in the same ways losing a human loved one does — sometimes, even more devastatingly. The truth is that it could take months to feel a sense of peace over the loss of a pet, and even then, memories of your departed loved one may still bring a tear to your eye. Still, there are all kinds of healthy ways you can cope with the loss of your pet so you can move through your grief and begin to heal your broken heart.
Preparing for the Loss of a Pet
You won’t always be able to plan for a pet’s passing. However, if you plan on putting your pet to sleep because his health is failing, the experience may be less traumatic for you and your family with these steps.
Talk to Your Family Members About Your Decision
If possible, every member of your family should have a chance to prepare themselves to say goodbye to your pet. Although it may be an uncomfortable and painful conversation, make time for it, and be ready to answer questions (and be met with resistance).
If you have kids, you’ll need to use age-appropriate language in the discussion and realize that no matter their ages and maturity levels, they may not understand or accept why you have to let go, and they’ll likely have a lot of questions. Try to answer them as best as you can without going into overwhelming details, and be sure to focus on the fact that your decision was based on the love you have for your pet.
Decide Where You Want Your Pet to Cross the Rainbow Bridge
In the past, pet parents were limited to visiting the vet’s office to euthanize their pets. While this is still an option, there are now many veterinarians who will visit the homes of their patients to perform this service. Many people find it more comforting for themselves and their pets to be in their own homes during passage, where everyone is in a familiar environment and they don’t have to deal with the stress of driving to and from the vet. If you’d prefer to have the procedure done outside of your home, bring one or two comfort items to make your pet feel more at ease, such as a cozy blanket or favorite toy.
Give Him the Best Day Ever
When you know your precious time with your pet is coming to an end, take some time to spoil him in his final days. Feed him his favorite foods, take him to the dog park, and visit loved ones who will want to say goodbye to him. Making the most of the time you have left together will also help you, since you’ll create even more fond memories you can cherish after he passes away.
Hold or Pet Your Critter in His Final Moments
It may sound impossibly hard, but touching your pet however you can when he’s crossing the Rainbow Bridge will help him feel more at ease in his final moments. It will bring you immediate and long-term comfort, since you’ll know he left peacefully as you held his paw.
Coping with the Loss of Your Pet
Just like losing a human loved one, dealing with the death of a pet can take weeks, months, or even years. You’re saying goodbye to a creature who played a huge role in your life, so his absence will leave a big hole in your heart. Still, there are a lot of ways you can ease your pain.
Take Your Grief Seriously
You didn’t just lose a pet — you lost a beloved family member and a loyal companion. What’s more, pets are deeply ingrained into our daily routines, so when they die, it literally changes our way of life. While it’s easy for people who have never had a furry, feathery, or scaly loved one to minimize your loss because they don’t understand what you’re experiencing, it’s important that you recognize your grief is very real, and you need to honor it accordingly.
If possible, take a day or two off work as you come to terms with your pet’s death. If a close human family member died, you would likely take sick or bereavement time to cope with your loss. Likewise, your pet was an important member of your family, so taking time off work will give you an opportunity to privately cope without having to worry about job-related stress, even if only for a day.
Focus on Your Happy Memories
When someone you love dies, it’s easy to feel guilty for all of the “should haves” in the relationship. These feelings can run even more deeply when it comes to a pet that was completely dependent on you for his health and happiness. It can be difficult to keep from thinking about the things you didn’t or simply couldn’t do for your companion, whether you regret not taking him on your last family vacation or you couldn’t afford the cost of his medical care in his final days.
Try to keep your focus on all of the good times you shared with him. It might be painful to think about your departed pet at first, especially without feeling any regrets, but reflecting upon the time you and your companion shared will ultimately help you let go of more painful memories.
However, you shouldn’t suppress the less pleasant emotions you’re bound to feel. Even if you actively try to focus on the good times, you’ll inevitably feel sadness, anger, and guilt sometimes, and that’s a completely natural response to grief. Trying to suppress these feelings won’t make them completely disappear, so it’s healthier to deal with them as they come and work on shifting your focus to memories that make you smile.
Express Yourself in a Healthy Way
Finding a healthy outlet for your grief is a powerful way to begin healing after a pet dies, and many people coping with loss find it helpful to express themselves in artistic and physical ways. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and in need of a way to let your feelings out, one of these pastimes may ease your pain:
- Journaling about your feelings
- Writing down your favorite memories of your pet
- Writing poetry about your grief
- Creating a collage with your pet’s photos
- Practicing yoga
Memorialize Your Pet
Honoring your pet in a meaningful way will help you work through your grief and give you a wonderful reminder of what an important part of your life he was. Memorializing him also keeps his memory alive, which will help bring you a sense of comfort on especially difficult days.
There is no wrong way to memorialize your pet. Whatever you do to pay tribute to him that brings you some peace will be a positive step in your healing. Some of the most beloved ways pet parents honor their departed pets include:
- Having a funeral to bury his body or ashes
- Holding a memorial service to celebrate his life
- Planting flowers or a tree in his honor
- Making a scrapbook filled with his photos
- Dedicating a shelf in your home to some of his items, like his collar and an imprint of his paw
- Commissioning an artist to create a drawing, painting, stuffed toy, or sculpture of him that you can display in your home
Take Your Time Letting Go of Your Pet’s Belongings
Even if you don’t have use for a giant cat tree or a mountain of dog toys anymore, don’t feel like you have to get rid of your pet’s items right away. Getting used to your home without your pet in it will be a huge adjustment, and keeping some of his belongings around can help ease the transition.
When you’re ready to let go of his belongings, keep in mind that you don’t have to get rid of every item. For example, your pet’s favorite toy can become your go-to comfort piece when you’re missing him, while wearing his ID tag on a necklace is a sweet tribute to his memory. Items you don’t mind parting with, like carriers and unopened food packages, can be donated to your local animal shelter or rescue organization. This will be a meaningful way to offload these possessions, and it may even make it easier to take this step knowing you’re giving to pets in need.
When we’re grieving, it’s easy to neglect basic self-care practices. However, these acts should be even more of a priority in times of sorrow, because they are critical components to your physical and mental health. Be sure to exercise, eat nutritiously and regularly, and maintain a healthy sleep schedule so you’re more naturally equipped to cope with the emotional and physical effects of grief. If you’re having trouble with attaining any of these goals, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional. They’ll offer guidance on establishing or maintaining healthy diet, exercise, and sleep habits, and they may even recommend medical treatment.
Take Comfort in the Company of Your Human and Animal Loved Ones
Your friends and loved ones — especially those who have experienced the death of a pet — will be an important source of support when you’re grieving the loss of your companion. Inviting a friend over to catch up is a great way to keep you social, take your mind off your loss (or share your sorrow), and make your home feel a little less empty.
You should also rely on your surviving pets for comfort. After all, they’re likely hurting, too — cats and dogs often have an especially hard time when a pet they love dies, so spending time together will help bring you and your critters some peace.
Lastly, know that it’s fine to tell friends and family members that you’re not ready to discuss your loss yet. You may need some time to privately grieve before you’re able to discuss your experience with others, and while your loved ones will be eager to help you cope, they’ll understand if your pain is too raw to discuss.
Find a Support Group
Joining a support group with other grieving pet owners can be a wonderful supplement to your self-care plan. You’ll be able to share your experience and listen to others’ stories in a welcoming, non-judgmental forum of people who understand the pain of a pet passing away. Ask your veterinarian about available groups in your area, or use a site like Meetup to find local support.
Reach Out for Professional Help
If you still feel overwhelmed by your emotions after about a month and are finding it difficult to get through the day, you may be experiencing complicated grief, a condition in which sufferers continue to intensely endure feelings of sadness, anger, and guilt months or even years after a loved one dies. You shouldn’t try to battle this mental health issue on your own, so reach out to a psychologist or psychiatrist to discuss the actions you can take to truly heal. These doctors can prescribe a course of treatment to put you on a path to emotional wellness, which may include individual or group therapy, medication, or a combination thereof.
Consider Adopting a New Companion
Bringing home a new pet may be the furthest thing from your mind after your pet passes away, and it’s certainly not an action you should take before you and your family are ready. However, once some time has passed and the pain isn’t so fresh, providing a loving home to a new critter, whether the same or a different species, can be very comforting. After all, adopting a kitten who loves catnip as much as your departed kitty did will evoke fond memories, while adopting an adult dog from the same shelter your last pet came from is a wonderful way to pay tribute to him and save a life.
Remember, a new pet will never replace your old one, so don’t make this the goal of adopting a new companion. Instead, think of him as a brand-new family member whom you will share new experiences and memories with for years to come.
Whether you’ve shared a few weeks, months, years, or decades together, losing a pet is a huge loss that takes more time to cope with than many people realize. Honor your companion’s memory, practice self-care, and ask for support while you grieve so you can begin to heal. After all, even after our pets pass away, the love we have for them lasts a lifetime, and they would want us to be happy after they’ve gone.