The death of a pet can be an extremely difficult event for people, especially those who have a strong bond with their animal. The companionship and comfort offered by a pet can be particularly valuable to those who face difficult life circumstances (e.g., physical/mental illness, social isolation). It is important to remember that grief associated with pet loss is a real and normal reaction. A key challenge for those grieving the death of a pet is that the significance of this event can be underestimated. This situation can be problematic if it leads to feelings of embarrassment and/or guilt about experiencing grief in the first place. This has the potential to mess with an individual's bereavement process, thereby compounding an already difficult situation.
Unfortunately, there is not much information out there in terms of good-quality research on the grieving process as it applied to pet loss. I came across one study with a relatively small sample (106) of bereaved people (Adrian et al., 2009). This study found that feelings of grief and sadness are common and can last for several months for a significant minority of people. Severe grief reactions appear to be far less common, but do still occur in a small number of people. In the absence of a heap of good-quality research, I think it is safe to assume that people experience can experience a full range of emotional intensity when it comes to pet bereavement and, like grief related to the death of people, there is no 'normal' pattern of coping when you lose a loved one.
So, how do you cope when you lose a pet? Here are some things to think about:
- I think first and foremost, it is crucial to remember that feelings of grief when you lose a pet are totally normal. As mentioned above, society can often give the message that pet-related bereavement is not serious, shouldn't occur, or worse, shows that a person is 'weak' or over-reacting. If someone says this, or something similar, you can safely assume this individual is exhibiting the psychological wisdom of a paperclip. Don't go too hard on such people though- there are a range of understandable reasons why some might respond in this way (e.g., minimising the severity of the grieving process can be a way for people to manage their own discomfort about death).
- The next thing I would say is that there is no standard script for how bereavement should go. There is no destination you are trying to get to, nor is there a standard time frame for grief. People often talk to me or ask me about 'stages of grief'. To be honest, I find that this concept can be quite unhelpful. You will experience the full range of emotions- sadness, anger, anxiety, and so on. These are all normal- your brain and body are trying to work through a very difficult process. You will have an angry day, then a sad day, then go back to an angry day. Whatever you experience- that's what 'normal' is. Everybody experiences grief differently.
- Keep the basics in mind- getting good sleep and good food into you is important.
- Ask for help. People you trust and show some empathy can help you through. They can be a good listening post for you to talk about your feelings.
- Give yourself some time for grief. Its ok to have a cry or punch a pillow. Balance this time with other activities (e.g., doing things to distract yourself) and try and keep your normal routine going (as much as possible).
- Think about how you want to remember your pet. There are all sorts of ways to do this, ranging from creating a photo album to planting a tree in the garden. This is all about personal preferences.
- Thinking about good times and/or things you are grateful to your pet for can help you manage unpleasant feelings and keep things in perspective.
- Don't rush out and get a new pet. Give yourself some time. The decision to get a new pet should be made once you are feeling more settled. You also don't want to try and 'fix' the situation by getting another pet. The grieving process can be pretty horrible, but is a normal and necessary process to work through. Your brain and body need time to adjust. This will happen, but it takes a bit of time.
I have tried fishing around for some on-line resources. Some of it is a bit alarming in terms of the advice given. But, this site by Moira Allen has some good stuff. It has information on a range of topics and should be useful to many people.
Hope this helps you a little if you have experienced the recent loss of a pet.
Luiz Adrian, Julie A. Deliramich, Aimee N. Frueh, B. Christopher (2009). Complicated grief and posttraumatic stress disorder in humans' response to the deat of pets/animalsBulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 73(3), 176-187.