By Mike DuBose and Blake DuBose
Losing a pet is a devastating event that can cause major emotional pain. All animal owners will go through the process of grieving their furry companions at some point in their lives—potentially even dozens of times—but each instance will be as different as the beloved pet being mourned. In our backyard alone, we have the graves of ten loving cats that have been a part of our family over the last 30 years. Some lived to old age and others died tragically young, but all of their deaths were heart-wrenching experiences for our family.
Through conversations with other animal lovers and extensive research on the topic, we have found that we’re not alone in going through deep sadness at the death of a pet. In fact, for some people, the loss of an animal companion can hurt even more profoundly than the passing of a close relative! In a New York Times article, Tara Parker-Pope reported on a study of pet owners by the University of Hawaii: “Although many pet owners experience significant grief when a pet dies, about 30 percent reported grief that lasted six months or longer. Severe grief that resulted in major life disruption was less common but was estimated as high as 12 percent of those studied.”
Why do so many pet owners find the loss of an animal to be so difficult? Research suggests several reasons:
A pet’s love is pure. Human beings often have complicated relationships with one another. Even when we are loved deeply by partners, family members, or friends, there are likely still things about our personalities that these individuals wish they could change. Pets, however, love us exactly the way we are, with no complications. They just want to be around us and give us affection, no matter our mood on a certain day. It’s no wonder that the loss of this simple, powerful love is a devastating blow, especially to people who have difficult family or romantic relationships or don’t have many social contacts.
They grow on you. Over the years, we have had more than 50 dogs and cats, and the memory of each is imprinted on our hearts. Every pet has a distinct personality and unique habits, like humans, and the longer they stay with you, the stronger the relationship becomes (if you think about it, our pets log more hours in our presence than most humans). After a while, you learn to communicate with your animal companions, sometimes without making a sound. They become members of the family, bringing joy and comfort that can provide a welcome distraction from even your worst day. Research also indicates that people who own pets often have longer lifespans, so pets also benefit humans’ mental and physical health!
We’re used to meeting our pets’ needs. Companion animals rely on their owners for everything—food, water, shelter, exercise, and affection. We become used to them depending on us, and we see ourselves as their guardians. We form habits around feeding, watering, and caring for them. Many pet owners incorporate their animals’ needs into their daily routines, such as walking the dog first thing in the morning or saying goodbye to the cat when they leave for work. The death of a pet removes the need for these ingrained habits, and every time the owner goes to perform the ritual, they are reminded of their loss. As Joe Yonan expressed in an article for the Washington Post about the death of his dog, “Over the course of 13 years, for instance, the same thing would happen with Gromit every morning. I would sit on my bed to put on my shoes, and he would drape himself across my lap. I would scratch his butt and he would reward me with a big sloppy kiss. Recently, I did the math: Accounting for the times I was traveling without him, this interaction happened more than 4,000 times. So, it makes sense that when he died, it was months before I could touch my shoelaces without expecting to also touch him.”
Animals also stand by us through changes to our own lives and routines. Most indoor dogs and cats live at least 8-10 years (for many, significantly longer), a time period during which a human can undergo a lot of changes, like: finishing school, getting married, and starting a family; experiencing a divorce, dating, remarrying, and blending families; retiring from employment and downsizing to a smaller home; weathering the death of a family member; or any number of other important life events. A pet—and the loving support they provide—can be the one constant during times of change. So, when we lose our furry companions, it can also feel like losing a piece of our personal history.
You might feel pressure to hide your sadness. In our society, it’s accepted that we will grieve for the deaths of family and friends…but when it comes to pets, there are no standards of behavior. Humans say goodbye to others during mourning rituals like wakes, visitations, and memorial services, but rarely are these events held for animals. Without a funeral, many grieving pet owners simply don’t know how or when to express their sadness. They may be afraid they’ll be ridiculed for mourning their pet, or they feel like they’re not “allowed” to cry about the death because others they know have lost family members and they’re worried it will seem disrespectful. As researchers noted in a study in the journal Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, “Simply stated, many people (including pet owners) feel that grief over the death of a pet is not worthy of as much acknowledgment as the death of a person. Unfortunately, this tends to inhibit people from grieving fully when a pet dies.”
Some people don’t tell anyone of their pets’ deaths, other than close friends and relatives who also have animals and can understand the pain. However, by avoiding, silencing, or bottling up their grief, they add feelings of loneliness and isolation to an already dark time. This can escalate to severe sadness and even depression, which is why it’s so important to release the pain rather than keep it inside.
We blame ourselves for their deaths. Because animals can’t speak, it can be difficult to tell when they are sick or in pain. Sometimes, by the time their owners notice the symptoms of an illness like cancer, it can be too late. We may relive the time before we knew of the animal’s disease, beating ourselves up over signs we think we should have recognized.
When the death is due to a tragic accident such as being hit by a car, individuals may chastise themselves for mistakes like accidentally letting the dog or cat slip out the door. They constantly replay the memory, telling themselves, “I could have prevented it, if only…” Unfortunately, life is unfair, and we are imperfect. Unexpected accidents and tragedies happen, but it’s difficult for pet owners to recognize that when they’re consumed with grief over the belief that they let their cherished friend down.
We may have to choose when they die. When a pet is euthanized to end its suffering, some owners may ask themselves, “Was it really time?” In most cases, we have done all we can to give our pets happy lives, but we still wonder if we returned their loyalty by putting them down too early or too late. This uncertainty can make it even harder to cope with the loss.
Deciding to euthanize a beloved pet—even when it has a poor quality of life due to disease or an injury—is one of the hardest choices an animal lover will ever have to make. Even harder is deciding when to do it. Although they can inform you of your options, most veterinarians will not suggest when your animal should be euthanized because they are animal lovers too and it’s their job to keep your animal alive. It’s usually a sign that it is time when a pet stops eating and drinking water and the vet has done everything possible.
When the devastating day comes that you have to put down a pet, it’s important to take a little time to say your goodbyes. We always ask to schedule the procedure as the last appointment of the day at our veterinarian’s office to avoid interacting with other people afterward. Some vets also offer services where they will come to your home, allowing your dog or cat to pass away in its own bed or comfortable spot.
The procedure itself is very peaceful. Two drugs are administered by the vet, one to sedate the pet and the second one to stop the heart. The pet simply drifts off, seemingly in peace. Everyone in the room, including the vet’s staff, may be crying. They will offer to dispose of the body for you. We always take our beloved pets home, and Debra holds them for a time, brushing them lovingly as a final goodbye. Then, we carefully bury them in a deep hole with a marker in our back yard. We always pray over the grave, thanking God for the time we had with the pet. All of this may sound silly or ridiculous to a person who has not lost a loving cat or dog, but to us (and countless others), it’s a way to start the process of closure for a very painful loss.
Your friends and colleagues may not understand. Individuals who have never had a deep bond with an animal may respond to your grief by saying insensitive things like, “Why are you so upset? It’s just a cat. Go get another one.” Little do they know that scientific research has shown that the death of a pet can be just as traumatic as that of a close friend or family member. In one study published by the Journal of Mental Health Counseling, a group of dog owners was asked to arrange symbols in a circle representing how close they were to other living beings. In 38% of cases, the participants put the symbol representing the dog closest to the one representing them, nearer than most family members and about the same as their closest family member.
Even if they want to understand where you’re coming from, some people simply have never had the kind of close relationship with an animal that you have had. They may dislike animals, fear them because of a traumatic childhood experience, or have been raised to see them more as livestock than as companions. Although they won’t try to make you feel like your grief is unwarranted, they may not know how to relate because they’ve never experienced the same pain you’re going through. Many times, they will avoid the subject all together because they are at a loss of what to say or do. The best-case scenario is when friends comfort you by sending a sympathy card, letting you know that they are thinking about or praying for you, or making a donation in the pet’s name to a local no-kill shelter.
Many individuals believe that grief comes in stages, but there’s no cookie-cutter template for the process. There is simply no “right” or “normal” way to grieve. Everyone copes in a different manner, and every living being lost is different, with their own unique characteristics and relationships. Pet loss is even more complicated because there are no established traditions for grieving animals’ deaths in our society. It looks and feels different for everyone!
However, there are some general guidelines that you can follow to ensure that you are dealing with your pain productively. When that unfortunate time comes and your pet passes away, we hope that you will consider the following recommendations for coping with the loss in a healthy manner:
Recognize and allow your sadness. Grief is an intense emotion, and everyone must work through it in their personal ways and on their own timelines. Be patient with yourself (and others), and don’t try to suppress your feelings or set limits on the amount of time you grieve your pet. Don’t concern yourself with others’ opinions on how you should mourn (or whether you should mourn at all): do what feels right for you as an individual. It’s OK to talk to other animal lovers who are friends to help you through the sadness, especially those who have lost a pet. It’s a part of grieving to cry and be emotional, so don’t try to bottle it up inside.
Gently share the news with your children or grandchildren. Sometimes, we are so sad ourselves that we delay telling relatives about our pets’ deaths, especially when it comes to small children who may not understand. You want to spare them the painful details, but don’t try to keep the death a secret. Children are perceptive, and they will realize the pet is gone. When our grandchildren ask where the pet is, we say things like, “He has gone to Heaven.” They will often ask why, when the pet is coming back, and whether they can visit him or her. Children also grieve, so we try to frame the situation in a positive light, saying, “We will see them when we go to Heaven.” There are also many children’s books available that are specifically designed to help children understand and process death in a gentle, age-appropriate way.
Memorialize the pet. Scattering a beloved pet’s ashes in a favorite spot or praying over his or her grave can help provide you with some closure, similar to a human’s funeral. By showing reverence and respect for your lost family member (because, to many, pets are truly members of the family), you acknowledge their importance in your life and affirm the validity of your grief.
Do something positive in your pet’s memory. Another helpful way to begin the healing process is to make financial donations to local animal shelters in your pet’s name, helping other animals. Another great option is to volunteer at a local animal shelter, like Pawmetto Lifeline in our area of Columbia, SC. Celebrating the time you had with your pet by giving back can be therapeutic.
Keep mementos of happy times. In the days and weeks following your pet’s death, it may be difficult for you to look at photos of the pet. However, don’t throw them away; rather, move them to a different room for the short term or store them until more time has passed. Once the emotional wound is not so raw, you can decide which items to keep in remembrance. Although it can be hard to believe, there will eventually be a time when you can smile at a picture of your departed friend rather than getting upset or crying, and when that day comes, you’ll be glad you retained some keepsakes to remind you of those happy years.
Confide in someone. Being open about your pain can help it pass. If you have sympathetic friends who know what your animal meant to you or have had similar relationships with pets of their own, talking to them can help lessen your burden. Sharing stories about your pet’s life and what it meant to you can help you feel as if the pet is living on after its death.
If you do not have such a friend in your life or you are hesitant to talk about your pet’s death with people close to you, there are other resources available. Search for terms like “pet loss” or “grief support group” and your location using Google to find online or in-person support groups. (For example, interested individuals can sign up for Pawmetto Lifeline’s pet loss support group by filling out a form at http://pawmettolifeline.org/events/pet_loss_support_group.) The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) maintains a 24-hour grief hotlines at (877) 474-3310. You might also contact a trained therapist (especially a professional trained in grief counseling) to express your feelings candidly and learn some proven grief management skills.
Take care of yourself. Many pet owners exercise with their animals through activities like walking and running, so don’t stop performing these good habits. When you are suffering through grief, your immune system can deteriorate and harmful hormones are released into your bloodstream, so you need to take extra special care of yourself to avoid illness during this time. Get plenty of sleep, eat nutritious foods, and avoid overindulging in alcohol.
Remember the good times. Rather than focusing on the end of the pet’s life, think about the good times and replay fond memories. While it’s difficult, don’t allow your mind to drift into the darkness and reenact the pain when negative thoughts surface. Focus on the funny and neat things you did together. No one ever completely gets over losing a beloved pet, but time will heal your heart if you allow it, and the pain will mostly subside.
Don’t rush to adopt another pet. Some pet owners mistakenly believe that they can “replace” their lost pet, but the truth is that, like people, no two pets are the same. Your new animal won’t have the same characteristics you found so endearing in your deceased one, and the differences between them can inflame your pain even more. You may even feel guilty about adopting another pet, but it’s important to note that adding a new member to your family doesn’t negate the fact that you will always keep a reserved spot in your heart for your deceased friend.
Take as much time as you need to process your grief before adopting another pet. Bringing a new animal into the house can provoke memories of the old pet or upset other animals in the household, so make sure you are emotionally stable before taking in a new companion. In our experience, we usually carefully select and adopt another cat within a few weeks of the previous one passing away. (We provide a resource on how to adopt pets at www.mikedubose.com that can help guide you when you decide the time is right.
When you take in a new animal (preferably from a no-kill shelter), it opens up a spot for another, and an opportunity for another family to have a relationship with a loving pet. This thought can be very comforting during moments of sadness. It’s also possible that, like us, you may grieve for the loss of the former pet while at the same time enjoying your new family member.
Stay busy. In addition to talking to others about your grief, attending classes on overcoming grief (some churches offer them), and seeing a professional grief counselor, stay busy! Occupy your mind as much as possible so you avoid dwelling on your loss.
Pray. If you believe in a higher power, turn to your God for comfort. Some people may question God after tragedies occur or experience anger toward Him, but we have found that when bad things happen is when we need Him the most. Life is filled with pain and suffering, but also with many good things! Your faith can help guide you through the storm.
The bottom line: Many people feel the loss of their pets acutely, even equal to or more than a human passing away. This is due to the deep emotional bonds formed between people and their animal companions, rooted in unconditional love and trust. However, knowing how to grieve the loss of your pet can be difficult due to a lack of understanding from others and absence of established societal rituals. It’s important not to rush your grief. Accept it; don’t lock it up inside.
While it may seem that the pain from losing a pet will last forever, time will heal. One day, you’ll be able to look back on fond memories of your departed pet with smiles, not tears. If you’re like us, you believe that “all pets go to Heaven” and you will meet your furry friends again one day.
To end on a positive note: we hope God will bestow on us the title of “cat herders” when we pass into the afterlife! Can you imagine what that would look like?
About the Authors: Our corporate and personal purpose is to “create opportunities to improve lives” by sharing our knowledge, research, experiences, successes, and mistakes. You can e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mike DuBose, a former licensed counselor, received his graduate degree from the University of South Carolina and is the author of The Art of Building a Great Business. He has been in business since 1981 and is the owner of Research Associates, The Evaluation Group, Columbia Conference Center, and DuBose Fitness Center. Visit his nonprofit website www.mikedubose.com for a free copy of his book and additional business, travel, and personal articles, as well as health articles written with Dr. Surb Guram, MD.
Debra DuBose has been married to Mike for 45 years and co-writes articles with him. She holds bachelors and graduate degrees from Winthrop University and Francis Marion University.
Katie Beck serves as Director of Communications for the DuBose Family of Companies. She graduated from the USC School of Journalism and Honors College
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