On a purely rational level, most of us understand that the cute puppy or kitten we adopt will someday be an older pet who will reach its end of life. And yet, that knowledge does little to lessen our pain when it’s finally time to say goodbye. Losing a pet can stir up strong emotions including grief, guilt, anger, shock, denial, and depression.
“Processing the grief is tough. It’s a roller coaster of emotions,” says Colleen Rolland, the president of The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement, a nonprofit organization that supports people through pet loss. But, she adds, it is possible to reach a point where your pet brings up fond memories: “The last stage of the grieving process is resolution—when you can think about your beloved pet that has died and you can smile, laugh, and remember them with joy.” Here, Rolland shares her advice on coping with pet loss.
Acknowledge your feelings
First, understand that feeling grief may not be pleasant, but it’s a normal and healthy response to losing a creature you love. “People who are profoundly bonded to their pets view that animal companion as a member of the family,” says Rolland. “They are not just an animal, they’re part of that family unit.” So don’t judge your feelings; let yourself experience them.
Grieving the loss of a pet can take weeks or months, and there’s no reason to go it alone. Friends and family, especially those familiar with the charm of your animal companion, can help you process your feelings and join you in memorializing your pet. (More on this below.)
That’s not to say that everyone around you will understand what your pet has meant to you. Rolland acknowledges that some people may unintentionally minimize your pain. Phrases like “You can get another dog” or “It was just an animal” aren’t what you need to hear in the midst of your grief. “Non-animal people do not understand the depth of the bond that people can share with their animals,” Rolland says. “Sometimes they don’t even realize how much those hurtful things can strike at your heart.” If you encounter someone like this, it’s best to accept that they’re not able to provide the support you need—but other people can.
And though the internet can be a mean place, it can also be a kind and sympathetic one. Online, the APLB provides chat rooms helmed by grief specialists. “We can help them through the loss of a pet,” Rolland says. “There is hope, and it’s free.” Sometimes, Rolland says, the grieving process can uncover earlier emotional wounds; in that case, or if your grief feels too heavy to bear, a therapist can help.
Prioritize self care
Okay, okay—we’ve all heard about the importance of self care. But when you’re grieving a pet, it’s especially important to prioritize hydration, food, and sleep. “Without sleep, your mind cannot function properly,” says Rolland. “It’s just going to compound what you’re experiencing—that grief, sadness, and depression.” Exercise, she says, is another important factor in your well-being. “I’m a big believer in getting out and moving,” Rolland says. “Even if it’s just a 15-minute walk a day, getting out in nature is very, very helpful.”
Reorganize your routines
Waking up that first morning without your pet can feel disorienting. Your regular routine is gone; your home feels empty. To help you feel fewer reminders of loss, Rolland suggests creating new activities to replace the old ones that you used to do with your pet. “If you always walked your dog at nine o’clock in the morning, have something to do at nine o’clock in the morning that gets you out of that routine,” she says. “If you still have all of your pet’s belongings out in your home, very slowly start to put away some of those things so you won’t be triggered by seeing those things.”
Write a letter… or two
One way to pay tribute to your pet is to write a letter. “What were the things that you loved about them? In particular, what joy did they bring? What goofy things did they do? What made you nuts?” says Rolland. “Being able to journal or write a letter about that is very important and cathartic.”
After you’ve done that, consider writing another letter. This time, Rolland says, make that letter from your pet to you. “It’s very, very useful,” she says, “because only that person and the animal know the relationship and the bond that they shared.” The letter will remind you of the authentic love you shared with your pet. “It’s unconditional love, and nobody can take that away from you,” she says. “It’s always going to be there. Even though the animal is not there in physical form, they’re part of you. They’re part of your better self.” And in that deep and meaningful way, our animal companions never truly leave us.