How to Deal with Losing a Pet
Life with a pet can be stabilizing and deeply rewarding. They’re there in our most private moments, and we often spend more time with them than even our closest human companions.
They come with us on adventures and remain constant during times of upheaval and change, hang with us during the most mundane parts of our daily lives, and offer us love and comfort when we’re lonely or sad. They’re our alarm clocks, our antidepressants, our security blankets, and can be our exercise buddies and force us out of the house when we’re in a funk.
These are just some of the reasons why losing an animal companion can be extremely devastating, but historically, pet grief has not been taken very seriously in our society. And feeling embarrassed by the intensity of your grief, or like nobody will understand what you are going through, can make the grieving process even more difficult.
Fortunately, pet loss is being more widely recognized for the serious event that it is, and there are more and more resources available for dealing with the death of a pet. So if you’ve recently had to say goodbye to a beloved animal friend or think you might have to soon, here are some things that might help you cope.
Allow yourself your feelings around the death of a pet
Don’t tell yourself that losing a pet isn’t a big deal or that you shouldn’t be sad – and definitely don’t let anyone else convince you that this is the case. It’s simply not true.
Grief is usually the most acute in the month or two, but it can come and go for much longer than that and it’s important to be compassionate with yourself. Let yourself be sad or angry, let yourself cry if you need to, and remember that everyone grieves differently and on a different time frame.
Whatever that looks or feels like for you is completely valid.
When you’re grieving the loss of a pet, it’s important to make space for those feelings, and to do things that will give you comfort.
If it’s possible for you to take a couple of days off work or away from your regular schedule at the end of your pet’s life, then you should absolutely feel free to request the time. Both in the immediate aftermath of your pet’s death, and for however long the feelings of grief persist, you should make sure to do things that offer you comfort and release.
This can be anything, depending on what your preferences are and how you feel in the moment: listening to music, taking a walk in nature, journaling about your feelings, taking a hot bath, or spending time with friends.
Process, and let go of, any guilt or second-guessing
Many people struggle with feelings of guilt after a pet dies, wondering if they did the “right” thing or could have somehow prevented the death by doing something differently. This can be true no matter what happened, but it can be especially acute and complicated for people who make the decision to put their pet to sleep.
People who choose euthanasia often struggle deeply with the decision, no matter how it went. Could he have hung on another week?
Did I wait too long, and let her suffer more than she otherwise would have? Is it possible he would have been cured if I just tried this extremely expensive, long-shot treatment?
These thoughts and feelings can be very difficult to manage leading up to, and after, euthanasia. But recognize that there are so many variables that can’t be controlled or known in advance, and thus there’s no such thing as an absolute “perfect” time.
If you made the decision with love and compassion, both for your pet and yourself, then it was the right decision. And remember that your vet has a lot of experience with these situations, so if they recommended euthanasia, it was likely with good reason.
Memorialize your pet in a way that feels meaningful
Mourning and memorialization rituals take many forms. They can be informed by your religious or spiritual background, or simply by your own feelings and imagination.
Making a shrine or altar to your pet, lighting candles for them, or offering prayers, can be a way to honor their transition and wish them a peaceful passing. Shrines and candles can also serve as memorials, or as ways to mark a death anniversary.
Holding a funeral or memorial service, and inviting some friends or family, can be a way of receiving support from others as you grieve. People quite often have their pets cremated, and there are many options for what to do with the ashes – from scattering them to using them to make memorial objects.
Consider what to do with their belongings – when you’re ready
Some people want to remove all physical reminders of their pet as soon as possible, but for others it may take a while to deal with their pet’s belongings. You may want to keep a few precious keepsakes as a memorial, but that’s often not practical for everything.
When you’re ready, donating extra (unexpired) food and pet supplies to an animal shelter or charity can be a great way to honor your animal friend, and help other animals in need.
Seek support from other people
Support from friends and family is vital when you’re grieving, and those who have dealt with pet loss themselves can be an especially wonderful source of empathy and compassion. Others who have been through the same thing are likely to take your pain seriously, and may have advice and wisdom that petless friends can’t really offer.
There are also, increasingly, support groups and resources both online and offline for people dealing with pet grief. For severe grief that is interfering with your life and not lessening with time, it can also be helpful to talk to a counselor or therapist.
Give yourself time before getting a new pet
While some people rush right into getting a new pet, in general experts recommend against this and say you should give yourself time to grieve first. Otherwise you may be looking for a “replacement” for your old pet, rather than to start a new relationship with a new animal, which can lead to problems for both of you.
If you miss being around animals, volunteering with a shelter or short-term fostering can be a good way to test the waters and see if you’re ready to adopt your next best friend.