Pets are part of the family. Yet pets live shorter lives than the humans. We watch them age and die sooner than other family members.
The bond between human and animal companions is forged by love, joy, trust and loyalty. Real grief is to be expected when death breaks the connection. How does one cope?
People in mourning after the death of a dog, cat or other pet experience conflicting feelings. You will likely go through stages of grief when any loved one dies.
The whole family will be under stress. Some may be able to move to acceptance faster than others. Be patient with those who need time. Do not belittle them or ask them to “just get over it.”
Paying tribute to your companion can help the family gain closure. Have a memorial ceremony. Share memories. Say a toast. Light a candle. Assemble a scrapbook. Write an essay and share it. Frame a photo and put it in a place of honor. You may want to treasure a keepsake, such a collar or tag. (I keep these in my jewelry box.) Plant a plant, tree or flower. (We planted a bulb that flowers in the spring in remembrance of our Dalmatian.)
Take positive action in your pet’s name. Make a contribution to a shelter, dog park, veterinary school or other animal-related cause.
Avoid isolation. Friends who have been through this experience will understand your need to talk. Avoid those who think of pets as “just animals.” Today people do send pet sympathy cards or flowers.
Do not feel guilty if you made the tough decision to have your pet euthanized. Do not let others judge you negatively. Helping your animal die is a loving action. Be proud of your courage in taking it.
Be honest and open with your kids. This may be a opportunity to teach them a healthy understanding about death. Get them an age-appropriate pet grief book. Be patient. Listen. They may be traumatized emotionally and even physically. They may lash out or be unable to concentrate. Inform their teacher about the death. Let children participate in any memorial. An art project or a poem will help them express feelings.
Older people sometimes have the toughest time mourning the loss of a pet. Check in so they do not feel alone.
Be sensitive to remaining pets who may be confused or grieving as well. Try to keep to their routine as much as possible. Give them extra attention.
Do not adopt a new pet right away. Although you will always miss the deceased animal, you will eventually accept his or her death. At that point you will be ready to consider getting another pet. A kitten or puppy requires energy and emotional commitment. Wait until the whole family is ready.
Know that others have gone on to accept their pet’s death, and you will too in time. Your veterinarian may be able to direct you to grief counseling if you need it.
Our companion animals impart lessons about the most important things in life: patience, responsibility, commitment, communication, fun, loyalty, respect and love. Years from now, certain sights, sounds or smells may trigger a memory of your beloved dog or cat. But these moments will make you smile, not cry. You will appreciate how much your pet enriched your life. And you will know that even in death, he or she was giving you a gift: the lesson of how to accept mortality and cope with loss of something that we hold dear.
Related post: How to Help Kids Say Goodbye to a Pet,
Related post: How to Donate Your Pet’s Body to a Veterinary School.
If you live in Southern California you may want to consider donating your pet’s body to the College of Veterinary Medicine at Western University of Health Sciences. As part of its reverence-for-life philosophy it does not accept cadavers from shelters. Click here for more information on their Willed Deceased Animals for Veterinary Education (WAVE) program. Read about our experience donating Molly’s body to WesternU and Molly’s legacy.
For my birthday, my sister painted Molly and our cat Brownie as angels.
Our Dalmatian, Molly, growing up with our daughter. Molly is ages 4, 10, and 13.
Here’s some links to books that may help you mourn a pet.