Complicated Grief: Losing Your Pets From a Lost Relationship

The messy experience of losing your pet to a breakup or divorce.

Posted Oct 15, 2017

Adam Clark, used with permission.
Source: Adam Clark, used with permission.

In February, I had written an article entitled, Losing a Pet Due to Divorce or Breakup, as not all loss experiences come in the form of a physical death. Sometimes, the loss of a pet due to physical death can present as a complete ending. There is the unique aspect of pet loss for those who are grieving the end of their pets, and yet they go on living without them present in their lives.

Recently, I’ve had the experience of going through a significant relationship ending and experiencing the loss of the two dogs I had considered to be my four-legged children. As a grief counselor who focuses on the human-animal bond, specifically pet loss, you’d think I would know what to do and move through my experience quickly and effectively.

Grief is a messy, personalized experience for everyone. It isn’t that easy. Even if you know the right concepts, theories, and perspectives…it can take time for your heart and mind to align. Below are a few significant impacts I’ve highlighted through the grief experience of such a loss. You are never alone.

The Loss of Routine

We are creatures of routine and habit. We build our lives around waking up and getting the food ready for our pets. Some of us get up and go on a walk with them every morning, or get used to coming home early to let them outside. These moments allow us to find meaning within our day. When faced with the absence of this routine, we can be left struggling with how to fill the space.

For me, it’s being unable to come home and be greeted by the two 60-pound loves, with pure excitement in their eyes and exuberance in seeing me again, even if I was only away for a few hours. The greeting coming home now feels absent and empty.

Adam Clark, used with permission
Source: Adam Clark, used with permission

Missing the routine and presence of your pets that you once shared is normal. How can you change your routine to make something different? Is there a way to fill this space, or explore thoughts about getting your own pet in the future?

In order to avoid pain, some people will want to immediately adopt another pet, and can sometimes discover that they are constantly comparing to the companion they’ve lost. Each person is different, but it can take time for those feelings to grow less painful, with less comparison. The hard truth is you will never be able to truly replace the pet you had…but that doesn’t mean a new companion wouldn't be just as incredible.

No Longer Able to See Them

As mentioned briefly in the beginning of the article, physical death can present as a concrete loss. With such a physical ending, we wish, yearn, hope, and want to see our beloved pet again but know about the finality of loss. With a breakup, divorce, or relationship ending, the pet will go on living without us.

Relationships that end are never easy, and some breakups are worse than others. Pets may be used as “collateral” or a way to “get back at” the person who didn’t bring them into the relationship. Being told that you can no longer see a companion that you poured your love into can be absolutely heart-breaking.

It can feel unjust that although you gave so much, you cannot see them again. You may not want them to think you’ve abandoned them. You may be struggling with wondering how they are doing. You’ll probably be walking through a shopping center and be wanting to buy them that toy you see and feel the pain of knowing you can’t.

Adam Clark, used with permission.
Source: Adam Clark, used with permission.

The pain felt in this instance can feel like it is swallowing you whole, engulfing your very existence. The truth is…we grieve and feel the pain for loving so deeply. When we share our heart with someone, whether two or four-legged, we are always at risk for the pain and vulnerability of the end.

Being unable to see them doesn’t ever negate the love shared. It doesn’t negate the times you hiked together, played together, snuggled together. It doesn’t ever negate the difference you made in their lives, if even for a short period of time. That can stay in your heart and can never be taken away.

Eventually, the focus will shift from the pain of loss to the gratitude of shared experiences. You’ve made a difference in their life. Making a difference for a four-legged companion is the ultimate act of love, especially when we know that in doing so there was a chance we’d never see them again.

The Break of Unconditional Love

Human to human relationships are extremely complicated. Each one of us has faults and brings our own “baggage” into a relationship. When a relationship is intimate such as a partnership, you can’t hide history for very long.

It takes two people to work through issues that come up, conflict that occurs, and repairing the relationship after a fight. It takes two people in a relationship to choose each other every single day. This choice isn’t a passive choice, it’s an active choice.

With the pets that we share…it isn’t so complicated. Our pets express and show us unconditional love and joy when they see us. They haven’t treated us poorly, gotten into fights with us, or caused us pain. The love shared is pure, without conditions or expectations of how we are to look, act, or what we are to say. They are forgiving and understanding.

Adam Clark, used with permission.
Source: Adam Clark, used with permission.

The loss of such unconditional love impacts us on every level. At times, we can feel guilty about grieving their loss. One, because our cultural quickly judges those grieving the loss of a pet. Two, some may feel that they ebb and flow from grieving the pet more than the human relationship and may feel guilty for doing so as it shifts back and forth. 

There is no timeline for experiencing this lens of grief. Each person processes and moves through the experience differently and at their own pace. We may find ourselves comparing our healing to that of our ex-partner, feeling like we are “behind” or that they are “farther ahead.” This is not a race, and the heart comes first.

Some find that getting involved with a shelter and volunteering their time helps in the grief of their four-legged companion. Some find that they open their house and home to fosters can help. Others find more solace in reflection, meditation, and journaling their sadness.

Overwhelming Emotions & Complicated Grief

As I touch on in my article, My Pet Died And I Can't Stop Crying and What If The Pain of Pet Loss Becomes Too Much to Bear, grief is a normal process that impacts us on every level. We feel as though we’ve lost a very piece of a heart.

Adam Clark, used with permission.
Source: Adam Clark, used with permission.

When losing a pet is because of a lost relationship, we’ve also just complicated our grieving experience. We ebb and flow grieving the loss of our relationship. We grieve our hopes, our dreams, our memories shared with another person. It can take some time for the heart and the mind to catch up to one another. The mind may say “this is for the best” and the heart says “I want the connection, I miss them, I miss the good.”

At the very same time, we grieve the loss of a companion, an animal that shared such a beautiful space within our lives and gave us so much joy. We yearn to have them back and be greeted with their presence again. We may feel hurt and project blame onto ourselves or the other person.

All of these feelings are normal throughout the process. The most important thing we do is continue moving through our experience. Taking one foot and placing it in front of the other, even if that step is tiny. Even if all we can do is the constant reminder to keep looking forward. Moving through grief never negates the memories, the experiences, or the love shared with the two or four legged beings that share a moment of our lives. In a sense, it becomes a part of us. We learn, we grow, we grieve.

Adam Clark, LCSW, AASW is a published writer, educator, and adjunct professor at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work. Adam 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.lovelosstransition.com, or he can best be reached at adam@lovelosstransition.com