Losing a loved one is never easy- whether they are human or animal. I know from personal experience that pets can play just as large of a role in your life as a close friend or a family member. The loss of the latter prompts plenty of empathy and condolences; but rarely do we receive such support after the death of our beloved pets, even if it is just as traumatic. Because of the stigma, the death of a pet can be confusing and overwhelming for the owner. Rather than feel what they need to, the owner may try to suppress their emotions, which only makes the situation worse.
Recently, one of my cats was hit and killed by a car. I had known him since he was a baby and he had been my companion ever since. Having to deal with his death so suddenly caught me off guard. Naturally, I was very distraught. I didn’t know exactly how to deal with the situation. It took time, patience and reflection on my part to figure out the appropriate course of action and deal in a healthy way.
Here are some things that helped me through my loss (and will hopefully help you too):
Feel what you need to. There is no standard amount of time you can assign to the grieving process- it will be different for each individual. Be compassionate with yourself and eliminate any “should” talk (like “I should be over this by now” or “I shouldn’t be so sad”). When feelings come up, don’t dwell on them, but don’t ignore them either. Anything that rises to the surface is there for a reason, and there is no right or wrong way to feel: so gently acknowledge your emotions.
Write or journal, especially if you don’t know exactly how you are feeling. Doing so can help you to organize your thoughts and express your emotions more clearly. Writing a letter or poem specifically to your pet can be a great way of getting closure, but any form of writing is useful when grieving.
Have a memorial. This is another way to create closure and honor the life of your pet. You could have a full-out burial ceremony, a jar of ashes, a plant in the backyard, or any other symbol of remembrance.
Find others who can relate. Spending time with other animal lovers and/or pet-owners following the death of your pet can help you recover and generally become comfortable addressing the death. These people will be able to relate to you, give advice, and provide a listening ear. You could even find a pet loss support group.
Don’t be quick to go out and find a new pet. There is obviously a large void left when your animal dies. Although rushing to get a new pet may seem appealing, it will not allow you the necessary time to cope with the death and process what you are feeling. It is simply a “quick-fix” to avoid discomfort and possible loneliness.
Celebrate the life your pet lived. Specific example: my cat was sickly from the get-go. He had allergies and UTI’s and all sorts of other ailments for most of his life. We almost lost him twice, yet he kept fighting for 8 years. This is much longer than it could have been. He was strong, and- I like to think- pretty happy. And even more, I was happy with him. So although I am very sad to have lost my “Kitty,” I am grateful for the time we got to spend together.
Also in Animals: Essay – My Real Mother Was a Cat
Photo: Quincy Malesovas; Richard Roche via Flickr