Pets: Grieving the loss of a pet

Pets: Grieving the loss of a pet
(Courtesy photo)

By Kim Gilliam

Many of us have experienced the loss of a pet at some point in our lives, and know how difficult it can be. We console ourselves by knowing that the good years we spent with them far outweigh the loss, but it hurts just the same.

You may have seen the recent news where the death of a beloved dog was such an
emotionally traumatizing experience that it actually broke the owner’s heart. Doctors performed emergency tests which identified that the 62-year-old woman had stress cardiomyopathy — often referred to as “broken-heart syndrome.”

Thankfully treatment with heart medications led to her recovery. Her doctor noted that while a variety of stressors can bring it on, this case “suggests that many people view their family pet as a member of their family so it’s like losing a child.” So how can you help yourself get through a period of grieving a furry loved one?

First, don’t over-analyze or deny your grief; accept it as a natural response that will grow more tolerable with time. Recall memories from throughout your life together, not just the snapshot of its ending. Be sure to take good care of yourself while grieving – get sufficient sleep, eat well and stay in close contact with those who understand. Distract yourself with volunteer work or physical exercise. And do not hold back the tears; know that the day will come when the loving memories bring warm smiles of recollection instead of pangs of loss.

There are some specific activities you can do with children to help them move through the stages of grief: Scrapbook their favorite pictures, keepsakes and memories of their pet or place them in a decorated memory box.

  • Write a poem, song or letter to their pet then share this with the family.
    Hold a pet funeral; while it may seem strange, it can be helpful as they process their emotions.
  • Read books like “The Tenth Good Thing About Barney” by Judith Viorst which reminds them that grief takes patience.
  • Help them plant something in the yard as a living memorial to their pet.

Do you have a friend who recently lost a pet and you don’t know what to say?Even with the best intentions, you may worry that you’ll say or do the wrong thing. Remember that their grief is a natural reaction; get them to open up about their feelings and special bond they shared with the animal. Don’t say things that minimize the loss like it was “just a dog” or “just a cat,” indicating that they should move on, but instead just lend an ear. Ask about the happy times, like when they first brought the pet home or the favorite things they loved to do together.

And help care for them by making a healthy meal or offering to take on tasks that would be difficult to face, like picking up the pet’s ashes or packing away their toys.
And remember, while it may be tempting to rush out and fill the void left by a pet’s death by immediately getting another one, in most cases it’s best to mourn the old pet first and wait until you’re emotionally ready for a new animal. You could start by volunteering with a shelter or rescue; spending time caring for pets in need is not only great for the animals, but can help you decide if you’re ready for a new pet.

Kim Gilliam owns Alexandria’s Frolick Dogs, an indoor dog gym, with her husband, Kevin Gilliam.