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What If the Pain of Pet Loss Becomes Too Much to Bear?

When to seek help after experiencing the death of a companion pet.

Loving pet parents and animal lovers fear and dread considering the time that their pet will die. All too many of us experience the tragic or traumatic death of our companions. Others experience an incomplete ending with a runaway pet, never truly knowing the outcome of their experience.

We are left with having to make extremely difficult choices in euthanasia, and commonly finding ourselves unable to sleep or engage in anything that used to bring joy. When we cry, we are afraid the tears may never stop. Yet at the same time, we experience the pain to remember that our pets meant something to us.

In grieving for our pets, we may face judgment from others. Hearing the words, "It was just a pet, you can always get another one," can strike us to the core, and can make us question if we should be grieving this much for the death of our companion.

What's "Normal" Grief, Anyway?

People can be immensely uncomfortable when faced with grief. Most of us fear our own mortality and like to ignore the concept of death. When someone is grieving, there are many well-intended friends that just don't know the right words to say, and end up harming instead of healing us through the grief of our loss.

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

We are forced with timelines, either suggested by our friends or created in our own minds. Some will hear family members say, "You've been crying about this for a month, time to move on with your life." Others expect a linear or chronological timeframe. People still tend to believe that grief should be a smooth process, one that can be quickly moved through.

The fact is, however, grief isn't linear or chronological at all. Theories of grief and loss attempt to guide us and explain to us the emotions we are facing. The honest truth is that grief is extremely messy. We experience the acute phase of grief, or the moment right after passing. We also experience anticipatory grief, or the feelings of grief while our pet is still living, but we are aware of an upcoming end either through disease or natural death. There's depression, anxiety, pain, panic, shame, guilt, anger, regret, and many more too lengthy to list in this article.

Sometimes we need a bit of extra support, which usually comes from a licensed counselor, social worker, or psychologist.

When Does Grief Become Unhealthy?

When we look at the span of grief, it's usually inaccurate to look at the timeline of grief. The time it takes to move through a grief experience varies immensely from person to person. For one individual, it may take four months to start feeling "normal" again and consider adopting another furry friend. For another, it may take six months, nine, or a year.

The level of impact that grief has upon your life is the most important part. It's completely normal, and healthy, to isolate and feel extreme emotions right after your pet has died. Every time we cry or experience an emotional outburst, our body is healing and moving through the experience.

When our thoughts and emotions are keeping us crippled in bed for months, this may start impacting our lives in a negative way. If we depend on a job to pay rent and support our remaining animals, this may infringe on keeping the job and being faced with job loss. If we aren't eating and losing weight, our health may be at risk. If we continue to isolate for months without responding to our friends' outreach, we may be at risk for further isolation and a decrease in social support, which could have a negative impact on our psyche and overall well-being.

If your patterns are causing a significant impact on your life for a prolonged period of time, it may be helpful to seek the support of a professional counselor that can help guide you through.

Self-Hatred, Blame, and Harmful Thoughts

It's quite common to see loving pet parents blame themselves for the death of their animal, especially when having to make the difficult choice of euthanasia. With redirection of our thoughts and moving through the grief process, these thoughts tend to decrease and can be replaced with happier memories, with the acknowledgment that through your decision your pet no longer had to suffer.

Our minds are rapidly attempting to process our new reality when we've experienced the death of a pet. Some of us have minds that are more negative, easily placing blame, guilt, or shame on us.

Katarzyna Białasiewicz / 123RF Permission
Source: Katarzyna Białasiewicz / 123RF Permission

We may say to ourselves: "You should have known this was going to happen." "Why didn't you do this?" "I killed them." These thoughts are unhealthy and harmful if continued without mindful redirection for prolonged periods of time.

Without mindful redirection toward more positive thoughts, they tend to build and become even darker. If your mind is ruminative, or rapidly cycling through the same increasingly dark thoughts, it can be extremely helpful to seek professional counseling during this time.

In this case, counselors provide a non-judgmental presence and can work with you to understand the origin of these thoughts. Typically, these thoughts are historical and can be very unconscious until triggered by a significant life event, such as the death of a pet.

Self Harming, Excessive Drinking or Drug Use, or Thoughts of Suicide

There are times in our lives when we feel like there is no hope left. That we simply have hit rock bottom and cannot handle one more thing. If our pet dies in a dark moment in our lives it can trigger painful thoughts and actions that are extremely harmful.

If you find yourself doing drugs or drinking excessively after the death of a pet, the additional support of a counselor may help you process through and come up with alternative methods to cope with your experience.

Many times, thoughts of suicide or self-harm such as cutting or other forms of self-mutilation increase with drug use and chronic negative self-talk.

Having thoughts of ending your own life isn't as rare as you may think. There are many people who struggle with living after the death of their pet, especially if their pet was one of the only reasons for living. Many people live day-to-day knowing that their pet depends on them, and during hard times their pets may be their only crutch to stand on.

Seeking the guidance and support of a counselor is never a sign of weakness, but a strength.

There are so many four-legged friends looking to share unconditional love. If during this time you don't feel ready for another pet in your home, there are rescues who would love a few moments of your time to experience the love that only you can give.

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7 dial 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

More from Adam Clark LCSW, AASW
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