It’s OK to Grieve



            Paul was a military combat veteran who had seen numerous men killed in battle; he had made some peace with his wife’s death from cancer; however, after his 13-year-old dog died, Paul couldn’t understand why he cried so uncontrollably, why he couldn’t stop visualizing his dog in his pain, why he no longer wanted to eat.


            Society’s failure to recognize pet loss as a legitimate cause of grief has caused many people to suffer in silence and increases their sense of isolation and confusion.

          90% of pet owners consider their pets to be family members.  While other relationships wax and wane, the human-pet relationship endures.  Pets accept their owners unconditionally.  They allow their owners to express almost any emotions, they do not criticize or give advice, and they remain loyal.  Having shared such an accepting relationship can make its loss overwhelming.

          When a pet dies, part of a life style is lost; walks are no longer needed, feeding dishes no longer are filled, brushes and leashes are no longer used.  All that the pet symbolized is lost as well, companionship, security, and comfort.

          Although each individual’s situation is unique, bereavement almost always follows a fairly regular pattern.  For most, the stages of bereavement differ only in intensity and length.  Some otherwise perfectly sane people end up doing and experiencing seemingly “crazy” or unusual things during the normal bereavement process.  They may hear, see and feel the presence of a pet that has recently died.  Very commonly, completely rational people talk to their dead pets.

          Some of the physical symptoms of grief include:  general fatigue, muscle weakness; change in appetite and sleep patterns; a hollow, empty feeling in the stomach; tightness in the throat, chest; deep sighing or a sudden outburst of tears.

          It is possible that someone may get stuck in one of the stages of bereavement—constantly bursting into tears, unable to shake the feeling that the pet is still alive somewhere, or having problems getting up in the morning etc.  This does not signify weakness or a complete emotional breakdown, but if it is troubling and persists for a long period of time, it may be a good idea to seek counseling or other outside help.

          May people experience anticipatory grief from time to time—“What will I do when Daisy dies?”  After the death of a pet, the first stage of grief includes numbness, shock and denial; the middle period of grief is generally a mixed-up, upset feeling, characterized by depression and anger, (often getting up in the a.m., having momentarily forgotten the loss, which then comes rushing back full force, and/or coming home to an empty house without your pet’s joyful welcome are especially difficult); the final stage is acceptance, which includes understanding that the death actually did happen and dealing with it in a realistic way.

          It is important to help children and other pets with their grief.  In general, the older the child, the more he/she should be made aware of the details.  Children under five don’t have a very clear idea of death, and the term “put to sleep” can make them fearful of bedtime.  Children between five and ten or twelve understand more about death, but still have trouble fully comprehending it and may ask questions about the “gory details” of a pet’s death.  This is due to their need to know details in order to grasp what happened and straightforward, honest answers should be given; young teens may need the most help. They often benefit from being allowed to participate in decisions about the pet. 

          Many families find it helpful to have some kind of funeral service.  Another form of comfort could be having a gravesite to visit, or an urn, filled with your pet’s ashes, to pick up and hold.

          Remaining pets will grieve, often refuse to eat, lose weight, look depressed, and search in places the deceased pet frequented.  (If possible, it sometimes helps the remaining pets to see and sniff the deceased pet so they better understand their friend’s absence)   After awhile the remaining pets may start to take over the role of the pet that is gone, becoming more affectionate or protective, or starting to sleep where the other pet did.

          Children and remaining pets can benefit greatly by having their grief acknowledged and an extra dose of tender love and care.

          One of the worst mistakes grieving pet owners make is trying to replace a departed pet with another animal of the same breed, size, color—and some people even give the new pet the same name as the one who has died.  This often leads to great unhappiness for both the owner and the pet.  A new pet should have the right to live its own life in its own way; accepted and loved for its own unique personality and features, not be expected to be a carbon copy of another animal. 

          And finally… Your grief is very logical and real; so be kind and gentle to yourself.  Your capacity to grieve can be equated with your capacity to love.


                                                                                      ~ Suzanne Phillips ~