Holiday Grief: 5 Steps For Getting Through The Loss of a Pet

How to cope when you're expected to be merry, cheery, and bright.

Posted Dec 08, 2018

Adam Clark/123RF
Source: Adam Clark/123RF

The holidays. A time when love is in the air, everyone is happy, and people are stringing lights and mistletoe. The truth; however, is for someone who has experienced the death of their pet, or any type of loss, this type of year can be especially painful. It’s perfectly normal, and healthy, to have such a reaction.

Below are five steps you can take that might help you (or a loved one) get through the holidays a little easier this year. If you’re struggling to know what to say to a loved one who has lost a pet this year, here are Six Ways to Say "I Care" to Friends Who Are Facing Pet Loss. If you’ve just lost your furry friend, you may want to start with Four Steps to Take After Experiencing Pet Loss or The Quiet House and Empty Dog Bed, Coping After Pet Loss.

Let’s jump in.

1. Learn to be ok with saying “No,” even if this changes traditions.

The holidays can be a stressful time of year, not only because the in-laws are coming into town, but most of us set strong expectations for ourselves. We may have developed holiday traditions that our family and friends expect us to engage in, year after year. We might be the one expected to bring the famous dessert for our holiday work party. Or, we might be the one who hosts the holiday dinner and plans out the lights for this year.

Adam Clark/123RF
Source: Adam Clark/123RF

One of the most important, and hardest things to do this time of year is learning to be ok with saying “no.” With this, you may have to excuse yourself from those holiday expectations. Especially if your pets death is very recent, we must take the time and space to experience our emotions. It’s very normal, and healthy, to be significantly impacted by the death of our pet.

As many of us do, we may struggle with telling ourselves, “it’s really ok not to hang the lights up this year.” Make sure to check-in with yourself. Will getting the lights hung and seeing their twinkle bring some comfort to you during your time of grief? Or, will hanging those lights bring additional pain and discomfort this year that you don’t feel prepared for? In this case, take a year off from hanging those lights and tell yourself you’ll add some new ones next year.

2. Take time for yourself. No, really. Do it.

It’s extremely important to take time and space to engage in appropriate self-care activities. If you’re not sure what this looks like, two of my previous articles 7 Self-Care Essentials While Grieving the Death of a Pet and 99 Nurturing Activities Helpful During The Grief Process may be helpful for you.

Typically after a loss, we find that we aren’t sleeping very much or seem to be crying all the time and can’t seem to stop. If we don’t take the time to try and fill our cups back up, even during the grieving process, we take the risk of becoming sick, taking things out on our loved ones, or being significantly impacted in our professional/work lives.

The holidays can make taking time for yourself even trickier, as talked about above there is an additional feeling of holiday pressure and expectation to continue traditions and show up at your friend’s house for their annual holiday event.

Adam Clark/123RF
Source: Adam Clark/123RF

3. Find a way to integrate your pet into holiday traditions, or create new ones

When we experience the death of a human friend or loved one, we typically know what we are expected to do and how to move through our grief. These practices typically are tied to our culture, religion, spiritual practices, and family traditions.

When a pet dies, we are left wondering how to memorialize their passing and how to move through the experience for closure. We may even experience significant cultural stigma that’s still associated with experiencing the death of our companion animals.

Many traditions are found in the memories of the holiday. This may be the perfect time of year to create a new holiday tradition to honor the memory of your pet. You might decide that during the holiday dinner you’ll light a candle in their honor and go around the table sharing a positive memory and experience of them. You might make a keepsake ornament in their honor. You may find it beneficial to buy toys and items to pets in shelters and donate them.

Make sure you’re continuing to check-in with yourself about your readiness for various activities. Memorializing your pet during the holidays can be something small, or it could be something large. If you’re taking the time to say “no” to friends and family when things are overwhelming and taking the time for yourself in self-care, you’ll be able to check-in more readily what you feel ready for. This step can be an especially important one to find some closure when your pets death is sudden, traumatic, or unexpected.

4. Allow yourself to cry

I cannot express the importance of giving yourself permission to experience your emotions and cry. This is a perfect and very natural response to experiencing the death of a loved one. Many of us truly do consider their pets to be members of the family, just as we consider siblings, children, and our partners.

You may have been told “it’s just a dog, you can get another one” or “your cat lived long enough.” These messages can cause us to feel extra guilt when we are openly and actively grieving the death of our pets. The truth is, most people wouldn’t say, “it was just grandma, you can get another one.” Many people are uncomfortable at baseline with death and don’t know what to say to support those in their lives. In our fast-paced culture, it appears easier than ever to ignore something that will eventually happen to all of us.

If you don’t give yourself permission to cry, I promise you that it will come out in other ways. It may come out to perfect strangers as road rage, it may come out as snarky comments to your partner, or it may come out in negative coping strategies like excessive drinking.

5. Share your experience with a trusted friend or supportive community. Don’t Isolate.

For many, the holidays at baseline come with conflicted emotions. Unlike our animal counterparts, our human relationships can be complicated and tricky. We may not care for Uncle Joe but have a family expectation to invite them over which causes tension in the family. We may not have the funds to host such an extravagant holiday party and get gifts, but we might anyway due to those expectations we talked about before.

Adam Clark/123RF
Source: Adam Clark/123RF

Although the holidays are supposed to be a time to reflect, spend time with loved ones, and show gratitude, it’s easier to get caught in quite the opposite. During this time, it’s easy to isolate and tell ourselves we don’t want to ruin anyone else’s holidays. We sit at home in our silence. In our pain. In our grief.

We may feel like we don’t want to bother anyone else. We may still be trying to cope in an unhealthy fashion by telling ourselves “it was just a pet.” We may not know what to say or how to make ourselves feel any better.

It’s important during this time to find a trusted friend that you can share your pain with. If you are that friend, please keep these things in mind. Now, it’s important to remember the isolating and taking alone time to process are two very different things. You may even consider speaking to a therapist that has experience with grief and pet loss. This can be a very helpful step. 

6. BONUS: It’s ok to feel happiness, too.

All of us at some point will feel that the pain will never leave. We may feel overwhelmed and swallowed in our grief and longing for our companion to return to us. We will have many triggers over the holidays as we unpack ornaments or may even find pet hair setting out holiday decorations.

This is all normal. This is good. But, our emotions are tricky. Eventually, the painful memories become fond memories and bring us a smile. It can be easy to tell ourselves if I’m not in pain they didn’t matter. This thought can easily justify bringing additional pain to ourselves during an already extremely difficult time.

Let those moments of fondness slip in. It’s ok to smile. We grieve as much as we have loved, and we have shared so many moments of happiness. Allow that smile to come up and remember all the lessons our pets have taught us about forgiveness, gratitude, and unconditional love.

Adam Clark, LCSW, AASW is a published writer, educator, and adjunct professor at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work. Adam is the founder of Pet Loss Education Project, and focuses his work on the psychology behind the human-animal bond, specializing in endings and transitions. He is passionate about reducing the cultural stigma associated with pet loss, supporting pet owners, and educating veterinary professionals. Additional information on Adam and his current projects can be found at www.petlosseducation.com, or he can best be reached at adam@lovelosstransition.com

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