Coping with the Loss of a Pet
January 31st, 2022 I had the unfortunate task of putting down my dog of 14 years. He was a 14 year old Yorkie who unfortunately suffered from health issues stemming from a dog attack in March of 2020. (Let’s just say 2020 was rough for us outside of just COVID). I knew the day would come, but I always hoped it would be different.
Granted he was a 5lb dog, but he was stronger than most. Even after having cranial surgery, developing seizures, becoming blind and deaf on the right side and entering into old age, he surprised all of his doctors and even us. He taught me that strength can come in even the smallest packages.
But that Monday morning, I saw a dog who couldn’t fight anymore.
Who shouldn’t fight anymore.
A dog who deserved to be at peace. He earned it. He was a good dog.
Unfortunately that meant that I would be left behind. Needless to say, I was devastated. He was a family dog, but everyone knows he is my favorite. Sounds crude, but I would say it with no hesitation. He has been there for me through my best times and the worst times.
While he was a grumpy pup, he was my pup. His snuggles were the best and I truly do miss them.
Long story short, the grief process sucks! Especially one that hits so deep and feels as though the masses don’t quite understand. For those who have suffered from the loss of a pet or preparing for that unfortunate event, I am hoping this blog can help you.
Why is losing a pet so hard?
The obvious answer is a pet is a part of your family. While they might not be human, they fill that emotional void unconditionally. All they ask is for food but they give you so much more in return. It is a unique bond that can’t be replicated.
It is more than friendship or companionship. It has no simple explanation. Therefore, grieving that loss feels deep and full of pain.
Not only are you losing that connection to your pet, but also the structure that they provided. For us, Curtis needed medicine, walks four times a day, obviously food, and companionship. It provided our house routine and structure, which felt safe and comfortable. Unfortunately without him, we lost that sense of routine. It is something you don’t expect to miss, but once it is gone you miss it.
Having that routine is helpful, especially for those who suffer from depression and even those who work from home. It provides something to do and someone to take care outside of yourself.
One of the hardest things about losing a pet is the guilt that you feel. In most situations, pet owners have to make the difficult decision to put down their pet. With Curtis, everytime he had a cluster of seizures and we had to take him to the pet hospital, I prepared myself mentally (never emotionally) that the vet would tell us that it was time. However, they always told us it wasn’t time. Again, he would always be stronger than we imagined. But on January 31st, we didn’t get that. It was time and we had to make that decision. A decision that I knew had to be done, but one that I will always hate that I had to make.
I know many pet owners understand that feeling. While we understand that it is what's best for our pet, the guilt lingers. We are left to question if it was the “right decision” or if it was the “right time”. Could we have done more? Was he ready? Was he in pain? All of these questions make it hard during the grieving process and it only further adds onto the pain.
The pain of losing a pet is understandable and deep. While it may seem impossible to cope with the loss there are healthy ways to cope with the loss of a pet.
How to Cope with the Loss?
For those in the beginning of their loss journey, the thought of “being ok” seems impossible and disrespectful. I am not asking you to forget your pet. I would never forget Curtis, after all he is my favorite. What I want to help you through is how to start the process of grief so that the pain is no longer intolerable.
Allow Yourself to Feel & Grieve
First and foremost, the grieving process depends on the individual. NO ONE should tell you how to feel. In addition to that, don’t tell yourself how you SHOULD feel. Allow yourself to grieve.
It is hard. No one wants to feel hurt and pain, but it is necessary. You feel profound hurt because you had a profound loss. So if you are feeling sad, allow yourself to feel sad.
What also sucks is that it comes in waves. Some days will be hard, especially on holidays and birthdays. Some days will feel okay. Even then there might be triggers that come up for you. For whatever reason, Dos Oruguitas (from Encanto) gets me everytime. It is a song about two caterpillars who are initially always together, who go through life but ultimately have to part ways. I know my triggers and regardless of where I am … it hits me hard. Everyone has their triggers, which can be hard, but I like to think of it as a small connection that I have to my loss. It connects him to me, even though it hurts.
Long story short, don’t ignore your pain. It is necessary in order to heal. It hurts now but over time it will hurt less. It won’t go away because your love for your pet will always be with you.
Finding a good support system to help you through your grief is essential. When I mean a “good support system,” I mean people who understand your loss. The unfortunate thing about grief of a pet is that not everyone is sympathetic to this type of loss. So find your people that can help and support you through this difficult time.
Another reason why it is important to find that support system is that unfortunately there are loose ends that need to be taken care of. Things you don’t anticipate are hard. Like calling to cancel pet insurance or picking up their ashes. Having a designated person to help you through those things can help so that you can worry about taking care of yourself.
Take Care of Yourself
Speaking of taking care of yourself, you need to. Grief can feel very consuming, but it is important to take care of yourself through this process.
I get it. It is hard to sleep, eat or find energy to do anything else when you feel sad, but it is necessary.
Focus on what you can do, the essentials. Like making sure to eat healthy (or somewhat healthy). It is important to make sure that you are eating properly. Sleep can be hard when you are grieving because of the racing thoughts. Journaling can help you release the thoughts onto paper so that it doesn’t feel so daunting emotionally. Reading before bed can also be helpful. Do whatever you can to help yourself sleep, as long as it's healthy, because sleep is important.
Exercise is also a great release when feeling overwhelmed emotionally and as I mentioned before, for some people walking their pets was their only form of exercise. We need to continue those good habits, unfortunately in a new way. Exercise helps to boost your mood and depending on the exercise can help release the emotional tension you are carrying.
Celebrate Your Pet
One of the things that I did immediately, which not a lot of people understood but it was a part of my process, was to get things to put around my house that reminded me of Curtis. Etsy was a great outlet for me.
For example, I made sure to get an urn that I wanted to be his final resting place. No offense to the urns that they initially give, but it didn’t capture the vibe that I wanted for him. Plus I wanted an urn big enough to add his favorite stuff toy to. (It was a promise I made to him way before his passing).
I felt that it was the only thing I felt I could do because everything felt out of my control. I wanted him to feel special because he was special to me.
In addition, I ordered a plaque with my favorite picture of him and a nice saying that captured how I feel about losing him. I look at those things with a positive feeling that he is still here with me.
Finding your way to celebrate your time with your pet can keep their memory alive for you. It can be hard, but it allows you to feel like they are still with you in your heart. Which is why I chose to write this blog on what would have been his 15th birthday. I miss him dearly and I always will. Nothing will replace him in my heart but I will always choose to remember him and everything that he has given me.
Whether you lost your pet recently, are anticipating that day or have been through your grief process for a while, your pet will always be special to you. You will always love them and no matter the distance between you, they will always be your pet.
To end this blog, I wanted to share with you a poem that was given to me from a friend after I lost Curtis. I hope this can be helpful for you on your journey.
Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge.
When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together. There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable. All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor. Those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by. The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind.
They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent. His eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster.
You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.
Then you cross the Rainbow Bridge together.
- Paul C. Dahm
Written by: Jessica Jefferson, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Certified Perinatal Mental Health Counselor and Owner of Cloud Nine Therapeutic Services. My passion is helping individuals through heartbreak, whether that is heartbreak with others or heartbreak within themselves. My goal is to be their guide on their journey to their self-discovery so that they can build the life and relationship they want. I am here for when you want to start your journey.