Coping with Grief

“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened”
- Anatole France

Our relationships with our pets are uncomplicated. They love unconditionally regardless of the color of our hair, our skin, the mood we’re in, our financial status, style, grace, or lack thereof.  It is therefore no wonder at all that studies have shown that most pet owners grieve the loss of a pet just as deeply as they might a beloved (human) family member or friend.

Todays pets are unquestionably considered to be family members. They share our beds, are considered “furry grandchildren” and accepted at most family gatherings.  Couples may opt to have a pet as a “starter child”, older people seek out pets for companionship and someone to care for  when children have left the nest. A child who has difficulties making friends may turn to a pet for a partner in crime. When that pet is gone, a void is left in the space they occupied that one can neither immediately fill, nor immediately overcome.

Yet despite these close relationships we develop, when a pet dies we are confused by the deep feelings of loss we feel for what was basically a “dog” or a “cat” or a “guinea pig”. While we understand that we cannot replace the animal we have lost, we assume our feelings of loss should be less intense.  Often well meaning friends and family members will try to help by reminding you that you can get another, forcing those feelings of loss to be defined as “crazy” or “unreasonable”; relegated to your private moments and questioned even then.

“When we experience a loss, a hole opens up inside of us. It is almost as if the loss itself plows right through us leaving us gasping for air.”

With the loss of a pet comes a variety of emotions: Some can be caused by the circumstances surrounding the death; you may be angry at the veterinarian or their staff.  If there was an accident, you may feel rage at the circumstances or the person(s) involved. You may also feel guilty for not being able to protect your companion.  If you chose euthanasia, you may feel guilt for having made that decision.

“Guilt is perhaps the most painful companion of death.”
- Coco Chanel

What most people, family, and friends don’t know, and what your veterinarian may not tell you, is that all these feelings: guilt, sadness, rage, loss and pain are normal. Everything you experience during a loss, whether it is a family member, friend, or a pet – even the loss of a job or a relationship – is your body’s natural response.  Depression, anxiety, loss of control, negative emotions, even relief; these are all normal and you deserve to feel every one of them and express them in your own individual way.  Your reality has been torn apart.  Helen Keller once said, “The only way to the other side is through.”  Your grief will not just go away one day, but it will soften. “You will one day acknowledge that the pain of loss is an inherent part of life that results from the ability to give and receive love.”

The bond you have with your pet is special and strong. Your feelings are normal and natural.  Please be kind to yourself and anyone else who may be suffering in silence. What kind of best friend would you be if you didn’t miss your pet? Please do not hesitate to let us know how we can direct you to additional resources as needed. 

GRIEF SUPPORT

Pet Loss Counseling - National Support Hotlines and Resources

University of California at Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine
1-800-565-1526
http://www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/petloss/index.htm

Cornell University, College of Veterinary Medicine
(607) 253-3932
http://www.vet.cornell.edu/Org/PetLoss/

University of Illinois, College of Veterinary Medicine
1-877-394-CARE (toll-free)
(217)-244-CARE (local)
http://vetmed.illinois.edu/CARE/grief.html

Tufts University, School of Veterinary Medicine
(508) 839-7966
http://www.tufts.edu/vet/petloss/

Washington State University
(509) 335-5704
http://www.vetmed.wsu.edu/PLHL/

Resources on the Web

American Veterinary Medical Association
http://www.avma.org/

Pet Loss Memorials & Support
www.nepanetwork.com/keepsakes
www.pet-loss.net
www.ourpals.com 
www.aplb.org
www.paws2heaven.com
http://www.funeralwise.com/pets/children

Horse Loss Support
www.hoofbeats-in-heaven.com

Why We Need to Take Pet Loss Seriously
www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-we-need-to-take-pet-loss-seriously/

Additional Support Materials

Books for Children:

  • Dog Heaven by Cynthia Rylant
  • Cat Heaven by Cynthia Rylant
  • I’ll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm, Crown Pub
  • A Special Place for Charlee: A Child’s Companion Through Pet Loss by Debra Morehead
  • A Gift From Rex by Jim Kramer, DVM
  • Tear Soup by Pat Schweibert and Chuck DeKlyen
  • The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst
  • Annie Loses Her Leg But Finds Her Way by Sandra J. Philipson
  • Healing Your Grieving Heart for Kids by Alan Wolfelt, PhD
  • Goodbye Mousie by Robie Harris
    Tough Boris by Mem Fox, Harcourt

Books for Adults:

  • Goodbye My Friend by Herb and Mary Montgomery
  • A Final Act of Caring by Herb and Mary Montgomery
  • Journey Through Pet Loss by Deborah Antinori
  • Grieving the Death of a Pet by Betty J. Carmack
  • How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies by Therese Rando
  • The Grief Recovery Handbook by John W. James and Russell Friedman
  • Healing Your Grieving Heart by Alan Wolfelt, PhD

This information was made available by the Argus Institute at Colorado State University, James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital and is also available on the web at http://www.argusinstitute.colostate.edu/