Coping with the Loss of a Pet

In recent years, the grief from pet loss has become more widely recognized and accepted

By Eva Briggs, MD

This column is in memory of my border collie Boomer who died in February 2021 at the age of 14. He had a long and happy life of walks, rambles, hikes, camping trips and fetch sessions. He even spent 10 years as a certified search and rescue dog. He was active until the last week of his life, when his heart failed.
This column is in memory of my border collie Boomer who died in February 2021 at the age of 14. He had a long and happy life of walks, rambles, hikes, camping trips and fetch sessions. He even spent 10 years as a certified search and rescue dog. He was active until the last week of his life, when his heart failed.

Losing a pet produces grief in many people. At one time, people were ashamed to admit this. In recent years, the grief from pet loss has become more widely recognized and accepted.

Pets provide companionship. Animal companions reduce loneliness and depression. They can ease anxiety.

The death of a pet disrupts our daily routine. There is no cat meowing for breakfast, no welcoming thump of a dog’s tail to greet us. Our exercise buddy is gone. There is no more socializing with other dog owners on our daily walks. We may be forced to find new exercise companions and new people to socialize with. In this age of social media, tales of our friends’ adorable pets bombard us daily to remind us of our loss. Without a pet to add meaning to our daily lives, we can feel lost and aimless.

Recovering from the loss of a pet also requires recognition of compounding factors.

• Guilt. We wonder, could I have recognized my pet’s illness earlier? Would that have changed things? If the pet’s death was due to an accident, we may constantly second guess what we could have done to prevent it.

• Euthanasia. This excruciating decision may be plagued by doubt. Did I act to soon? Or did I delay too long and permit my pet to suffer unnecessarily?

• Expectations that mourning will end at a particular time. You may worry that you should be over a pet’s death by a certain time. But everyone has their own individual timetable. Stressing over the time needed to mourn can actually prolong the grieving process.

• Reawakening an old loss. When a pet dies, it may remind us of past pets, friends or family who have passed away. If any of those losses were never fully resolved, it complicates the current loss.

• Resistance to mourning. Some people are afraid to mourn a pet for fear of appearing weak. Others fear that if they begin to cry, they won’t be able to stop.

Here are some techniques to deal with grief following a pet’s death.

• Find a support system. Talk to a trusted, supportive friend or family member. There are also support groups to help with bereavement due to pet loss. There is an Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement (www.aplb.org) and a Pet Loss Grief Support (www.petloss.com).

• Be patient with yourself. You have suffered a real and painful loss. Remember it will take time to recover.

• Memorialize and remember your pet. Collect and review photographs of your pet. Write down memories of your pet. Perhaps plant a tree or garden in memory of your pet. Your vet may give you a clay pawprint to cherish. Consider creating a ritual such as a memorial service at home or at a favorite park.

• Dispose of your pet’s possessions gradually. You don’t have to throw away beds, food bowls, collars or coats immediately. You can take your time unless the sight of those objects is too painful. In that case move them out sooner. Do what is right for you. Perhaps save your pet’s collar or tags.

If your grief is severe to the point where you become seriously depressed, seek professional mental health care or advice.

Eva Briggs is a retired medical doctor who practiced in Central New York for several decades. She lives in Marcellus.