Grieving the loss of a beloved pet is really no different than grieving the loss of a human family member or close companion. For many of us, that is how we defined our pet in life: a friend, companion, family member. Their death, our loss, is then no less than a human loved one. In fact, our pet’s love for us was likely unconditional, without judgment and frequently enthusiastic. How many people in our daily lives can we say that about? Therefore, the loss of a beloved pet is understandably devastating. If the death of your pet was unexpected, it is likely your grief will be magnified.
Here are a few suggestions to help you manage your grief:
1. Don’t judge the depth of your grief because it was “just a dog/cat.”
When I was forced to let my first pet go, I kept trying to tell myself, “it’s just a cat, I shouldn’t be this upset.” This thought process only adds undue stress to an already stressful event. The loss of a pet can be a life changing event. If your dog or cat met you at the door every time you came home, or sat with you every night watching TV, their loss will most certainly impact your daily routine. Do not underestimate the value of the relationship you had with your pet and how their loss may affect various aspects of your life.
2. Don’t rid your house and life of reminders of your pet.
It may be helpful, at first to pick-up toys, beds, food bowls, etc., but, avoid the temptation to permanently dispose of these items. You may find comfort later on in seeing these items and remembering good times you had with your pet.
On the other hand, don’t rush the process. You may not be ready to move or pick-up any of your pet’s items. You may find it too painful to do these things. That’s okay – it’s part of the grieving process. Give yourself time to work through the loss and all its implications at your own pace.
3. Talk to someone who has also lost a pet. Sometimes knowing you are not the only one who has felt such intense pain at the loss of beloved companion, is reassuring. Avoid being drawn into conversations with others who have not experienced a similar loss and want to judge your feelings.
4. If there are other animals in the home, be aware of their emotional state too. Animals are social creatures and the loss of a fellow pet will likely have an impact on them. You may notice signs of depression: change in appetite and sleep patterns, lethargy, crankiness, and lack of interest in interacting with you. These are also signs of a potential medical problem with your pet, see a Vet to be sure you get the right treatment.
Encourage yourself to comfort your remaining pets through their loss; stick to your normal routine as best you can. Engage them. You will all benefit.
5. Be familiar with the 5 steps of grief and know they apply to you and the loss of your pet.
-Denial: coming to terms with the actual death of a constant companion can cause a state of disbelief or emotional detachment from reality. Our denial is the brains defense mechanism in dealing with this new reality.
-Anger: As we begin to accept that our pet is no longer living, we may find ourselves angry at others, ourselves or even God for “not doing everything that could have been done” to save a life. This is the brains way of relieving the emotional stress we have allowed to build up during the denial phase.
-Bargaining: In this stage you may find yourself playing through a series of “what if” scenarios. These scenarios likely focus on ways you could have prolonged life or changed the outcome. It is common for guilt to be a prevalent part of your thoughts.
-Depression: You have experienced a very emotional and sad event. It is normal to feel very withdrawn and sad. While this is a very difficult phase of the grieving process it is no more or less important than the others. It is important though, that you not stagnate in this stage. If you find you are having difficulty progressing through the depression phase after some time, it may be an indication that professional assistance is needed. Don’t be ashamed to seek professional help if it is needed.
-Acceptance: This phase is not called the “Over It” stage! Rather, it is simply adapting to the absences of your beloved companion. Your sadness at the absence of your pet may never fully go away. However, you will find it easier to go about your daily life without the interruption of the previous grief you experienced. Do not be surprised at temporary set-backs as special occasions or anniversary’s of important dates remind you of your pet. However, progressing to this stage makes coping with these reminders a little easier.
6. When you are ready, finding a way to memorialize your pet and the wonderful memories you shared may also help you progress in your grief. Collect pictures of the happy times you shared together, plant a tree in your pet’s memory, or make a donation to a shelter in your pet’s name.
7. Avoid the temptation to “replace” your pet. Each animal is very different though they may be the same breed or look similar. Allow yourself time to progress through the process of grief before brining a new animal into your home. A new puppy or kitten deserves a healthy you that is ready to focus on making new happy memories. Trust yourself to know when the time is right and enjoy the process of finding your new companion, when you are ready.
Rest assured that the immediate loneliness, sadness and devastation you feel at the loss of your pet is not your new normal. Trust that the human emotional heart holds an amazing ability to heal. In time, you will be able to recall happy memories of your beloved companion and move beyond the pain of their absence.
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