Dealing With The Loss Of A Pet

Losing a beloved pet can hurt just as much as losing a family member. Find out how to cope with the grief.

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It's never easy to say goodbye to a beloved pet. jrothe/iStock/Thinkstock
Arden Moore

Empty. Angry. Disoriented. These words sum up the swirl of emotions I felt when I said my final goodbye to my dying cat, Zeki, last August.

Honestly, I can’t tell you how I ended up out of the veterinary clinic and in the passenger seat of my friend’s car, or recall the trip home. I do remember feeling cheated that a mysterious disease that confounded a team of veterinary specialists had robbed Zeki, my certified therapy cat and pet first aid demo cat, of reaching her sixth birthday.

This petite Turkish Van mix, who survived being scalped with a hunting knife as a stray, endured surgeries and months of water therapy to regain her coat, mobility and strength and shine as a symbol of survival. I was blessed to have her for four years. We traveled the country, giving cat behavior talks, visiting wounded military servicemen and women in hospitals, and providing hands-on pet first aid trainings. With each visit and class, Zeki quietly purred and welcomed hugs from everyone.

The only downside I see in cats is that their life spans are far too short for my liking — and I’m sure you would agree.

But one promising positive note is that more pet owners are “coming out of the grief closet” and not hiding their heartbroken emotions from family, friends and even co-workers.

“The death of a pet can be especially hard to take because for many people, it is the only complete and unconditional love that they have ever experienced,” says Judy H. Wright, a registered pet bereavement coach based in Missoula, Montana, and author of “I Lost My Best Friend Today: Dealing with the Loss of a Beloved Pet.”

Pet Death Triggers An Array Of Emotions

Just like when a relative or friend dies, common symptoms of grieving over the death of a beloved pet can include feelings of:

  • Loneliness
  • Anger
  • Helplessness
  • Guilt
  • Sadness
  • Worry
  • Depression
  • Relief

“Any and all of these feelings are perfectly normal and you can find peace again,” says Wright, who offers pet bereavement counseling services. “For one of my clients, the death of her Boxer was the final straw. She had taken care of her mother, lost her father to dementia, and then her sister died. She had to be strong for all of them, but when her Boxer died, she had a nervous breakdown.”

Identifying The 5 Stages Of Grief

It is also common to go through these stages of grief just prior to and after a pet dies:

  1. Denial. At first, I did not want to accept that there would be no miracle cure for Zeki.
  2. Anger. I yelled at my primary veterinarian out of frustration and feeling of helplessness. I was also a bit short and impatient with my closest friends.
  3. Bargaining. I prayed to God, asking that he keep Zeki alive and healthy, with the promise I would do even more to help pets in need.
  4. Depression. I was not my usual chipper, upbeat self for days, and begged off invitations from friends to see a comedy movie or dine at my favorite sushi restaurant.
  5. Acceptance. It took me a good month before I started to heal and focus on the good memories created by having Zeki in my life. Only at this stage did I celebrate the special bond I had with this special cat.

Tips On How To Cope

In a word, talk. Talk to friends, family members and co-workers who share your love of pets. And reach out to professional pet loss counselors.

Allow yourself to cry. And don’t judge yourself. At first, I found it odd that I sobbed more after Zeki died than when my mother died from lung cancer when I was 29.

“Think about how much pets are now part of the family,” Wright says. “Baby boomers not only are proud to have grandchildren, but now they brag about their grand dogs. I look forward to the day when all companies will allow family leave time for people coping with the death of a pet.”

She adds, “More companies are becoming holistic and recognize the need to deal with the entire person, not regard a worker as an employee. If grief is not allowed to be expressed, it turns inward and can lead to depression and physical illness.”

Helping Children Understand

Be honest and open in talking with children about the death of a family pet, urges Wright.

“For many children, this is the first time they have experienced a death,” she says. “Do not tell a child that the pet went to heaven or went to sleep, because some children may become too afraid to go to sleep. And answer their questions to the best of your knowledge.”

If a child asks “will my pet go to heaven?,” consider responding “I don’t know, but I think so.”

Don’t use the term euthanasia.

“Kids have no concept of what euthanasia means,” Wright says. “Gently tell them that as much as they love this pet, he is dead and is not coming back.”

Finally, celebrate the pet’s life.

“It’s important for everyone in the family to have a ceremony to share the good times that they have had with this pet,” she adds.

Recognizing That Pets Also Grieve

In a multi-pet household, there can be strong friendship bonds. Chipper, my Husky mix, adored Zeki. The pair teamed up to help me teach pet first aid classes. When Zeki died, Chipper was the first to sniff her body in the exam room, ahead of my cat, Murphy and my poodle-terrier mix, Cleo.

Pets grieve, too. My dog Chipper was close to Zeki and seemed to mourn her death. Photo Courtesy of Arden Moore

Pets grieve, too. My dog Chipper was close to Zeki and seemed to mourn her death. Photo Courtesy of Arden Moore

That night, Chipper opted to forego her orthopedic dog bed in my bedroom. In the middle of the night, I found her asleep on the living room rug next to one of Zeki’s favorite napping spots: a carpeted cat tree.

“Pets do grieve and I believe that they have a sense of the loss of a kindred spirit who they will miss,” Wright says.

Yes, I miss Zeki every day. Like many of you, she was what we term a “heart pet” — one who forever makes a positive difference in my life. It’s never easy to lose a pet, but the pain will, in due time, subside. Those precious memories of the good times you shared together, however, will last a lifetime.

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