Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Incomplete Endings: Coping With a Runaway or Lost Pet 

Moving through the grief and guilt while not knowing how our pet may be doing.

Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain
Source: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

It's quite common to think that grief comes at a time when there is physical death or a concrete ending that we can face and begin to move through. Many loving pet owners, however, recognize that there are times when grief comes about when the situation we face isn't so concrete.

Mistakes happen when dogs get out, cats escape, or the gerbil runs away. Not knowing where your companion animal may be, or how they are doing, presents unique challenges in grief.

At times, we ourselves or a family member may even be at fault. Maybe you forgot to latch the gate, or maybe your hands were full of groceries and you didn't see your pet walk right past you outside the closing front door. Maybe they slipped the leash while out walking and ran faster than you could keep up. The scenarios and "risks" are endless.

This post explores how to cope with the pain of grief commonly felt during this time, and change apathetic guilt into productive energy that gives back.

Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain
Source: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

You're in the Grief Process

A situation in which your companion animal has run away can quickly send you into a tailspin of emotion and grief. You wonder whether or not they may return, and you beat yourself up and place blame on yourself (or others).

Although it is easy to beat ourselves up, we must continue engaging in self-care strategies and taking care of ourselves and members of our family.

Many times experiencing a loss that is incomplete, such as a runaway pet, can be considered traumatic grief.

Moving Away From Blame-Making

One of the quickest ways to compound your grief and increase the tailspin of pain faced throughout the grief process is to add additional blame on yourself while you are grieving. It's important to work hard at moving against adding additional self-blame throughout the time.

Even if you didn't latch the gate properly and your pet ran away, it's important not to throw heaps of blame upon yourself. Why? You didn't wake up that morning and decide, "I'm going to purposely leave the gate unlatched so my pet can run away." Your motives were not evil.

It's easy to project anger and the many raw emotions we face throughout the grief process onto ourselves or others. If it was another member of the family we might find ourselves feeling angry, and having a hard time facing the person that let the mishap occur.

Making mistakes is a part of the human condition. Is there anything productive that happens when we add the pain of additional guilt and blame on ourselves or others? It's easy to do as we may want others to feel the pain we are experiencing, or we may feel we deserve to go through a gut-wrenching experience.

Coping With the Unknown

The hardest factor faced when a pet runs away is the unknown. We are faced with a litany of questions that cycle through our heads such as, "Where are they now?" "Are they okay?" "Maybe they were found by a loving family." "Were they killed by coyotes?"

Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain
Source: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

We attempt to comfort ourselves, especially in the beginning holding onto hope that they will return to us safe and sound. A 2012 study published by the ASPCA highlighted a survey of 1,000 households with pets across the country. It found that of those households surveyed, 15 percent had lost a dog or a cat within the past five years, and 85 percent of those household pets were successfully recovered. More on this study can be found here.

Statistics; however great in theory, do not help the pain if our pet doesn't return to us.

How Long Do We Wait?

The most frequent questions asked: "How long do we hold out and hope for their return?" "How long do we wait?" The answer is never simple, or easy. As discussed above, being productive in our grief and making signs, sending out emails, and engaging the neighborhood to look for our lost companion animal can help us cope. There is even a chance we may find our missing pet and return them to the family.

If days turn into weeks, and weeks turn into months, it can be hard to hold onto the unknown, to believe that our pet will return. We certainly don't want to feel as though we are abandoning our companion animal. It's a natural process to not want to give up, give in, or admit that our companion and pet may never return.

Similarly, in coping with the unknown, we must continue to move through our emotions and begin to engage in the closure process whether with ourselves or with a family unit. Doing so doesn't mean you are giving up hope, or admitting defeat. We may even receive that email, phone call, or message that someone has found our pet happy and safe. But we may not.

No matter what the ending may be, we can begin the process of closure by saying "goodbye" or "see you later" to our pet, giving thanks, and crying through our loss.

More from Adam Clark LCSW, AASW
More from Psychology Today
More from Adam Clark LCSW, AASW
More from Psychology Today