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Grief

Adopting a New Pet After Losing One

When to love again.

Key points

  • There is no correct "wait time" before one rescues another pet. The love is separate and has its own space.
  • Adopting a new pet does not disrespect the relationship, or memory, of a previous pet.
  • Pet loss grief is a form of disenfranchised grief.
Annette Shaff/Shutterstock
Annette Shaff/Shutterstock

“That is a long time to have a friend,” I say gently; looking into the tear-filled eyes of an elderly gentleman. He held in his lap a small 15-year-old terrier cross named George, who was losing his battle with cancer. George had been his constant companion, his source of laughter, and his reason to get up in the morning. Now he was saying goodbye, and trying to imagine a life worth living, without him.

I had known George and his owner, seeing them intermittently, for years. I knew what George meant to Mr. Huxtable because he had told me. He explained that he and Edna, his late wife, named him after the troublesome little monkey in the children’s book series Curious George. He told me that every day they get up and walk the few blocks to the gas station to get a cup of coffee. Everyone there knew him, but they truly loved George. He wondered aloud if he will ever go back there; because it won’t be the same without George. And then he added sadly, “I won’t have any reason to ever come here again either.”

Mr. Huxtable made the decision to give George a soft goodbye. I did the hardest part of my job, and then Mr. Huxtable left.

A week later I received a phone call from Mr. Huxtable’s daughter, asking me to “talk some sense into him.” Apparently, she had been trying to get him to go to the shelter and find a new dog. Mr. Huxtable wouldn’t hear it because it would be “disrespectful” to George.

Her heart was in the right place, and she was correct that having a constant companion was beneficial for her dad in so many ways.1 Where her logic was accurate and thoughtful, her approach was failing. He was grieving, she was worrying, and they were at a stalemate.

After someone has lost a beloved pet, this is a common quandary. Their grief is real and valid. How long they will grieve is a completely individual event, and the decision to get a new animal in their life is intensely personal. While they may feel that “someday” they will have another pet, they don’t know when “someday” might be. This feeling is incredibly common, in part because pet loss grief is a form of disenfranchised grief.2

Disenfranchised grief means that it is a form of grief that is not readily recognized, or supported, by our society. This lack of support allows for no framework or pattern to follow. With no framework, you have no milestones to feel like you are progressing in the grief, or even to know if your wants/needs/wishes are “normal”. It is very hard to know when “someday” should be, because there is no “guideline” for an appropriate amount of time to pass before considering a new pet adoption.

To understand how ingrained this “guideline” is, imagine a person lost their spouse. There would be a series of anticipated steps that happened next: an obituary published, a funeral planned and held, and a group of friends and family gathered in support. That framework is accepted, understood, and fully anticipated. Now, imagine instead of publishing an obituary, the surviving spouse published an online dating profile and started going out; even before the funeral. That scenario would be very uncomfortable, and likely viewed as disrespectful to the deceased spouse.

To someone who lost a beloved pet, with no guideline for grief, they may want another animal in their life immediately; but it feels like they are “dating before the funeral” and disrespecting the love, devotion, and joy, they shared with the pet they just lost. This feeling is 100% understandable, and someone who is grieving has every right to spend as long as they need to honoring memories of a life spent together. Their grief is valid; however, their fear of disrespect is misplaced.

When you have loved a pet and lost them; they remain a part of you. They live on through the memories you made and all the joy and richness they brought to your life. Adopting another pet will not change the past you shared with the pet before. The past is fixed, and can never be changed. That love will remain forever.

Also, adopting a new pet does not “replace” the previous pet. It is impossible to replace a treasured animal because you replace things, like paper towels, you do not replace individuals. Your pet was someone you loved; not something you ran out of. The love you and your lost pet shared remains, and still holds its place. So, if you adopt a new pet, that “new love” finds its own place in your heart. There is space for both; your heart just gets bigger!

Finally, the reality for domesticated animals is that they must have a home to survive. That is the entire reason shelters exist: pets must be adopted and cared for, to live. If not, they languish on the street as strays, or in institutional buildings that are overcrowded and understaffed, until they are euthanized. When you adopt a pet; you save a life. The equation is really that simple; a pet with a home is a life saved. The pets that shared your life before, are other lives you saved. Each rescue is autonomous, and a miracle for that animal. It is incredibly fulfilling to save a life and build upon that joy. There is no appropriate amount of time that has to pass, for you to want that.

Celiafoto/Shutterstock
Shelter dogs trying to be recognized and picked from the crowd.
Celiafoto/Shutterstock

I did honor my client's daughter's request, and called her Mr. Huxtable. He was glad for the call, saying how quiet and lonely the house was. We talked about George, sharing a laugh remembering how funny he looked with giant swollen lips after he tried to eat a bee. I told him his daughter had called me, and how much she worried. I also talked to him about there would never be a replacement for George, how maybe he had room in his heart for a different dog; another little life, that needed saving. Mr. Huxtable thanked me for the call and said he would think about it. He had missed having someone to take to coffee. I let him know that whenever he was ready to adopt another dog, I would like to meet them one morning at the gas station, and the coffee would be on me.

References

Diane Dembicki PhD & Jennifer Anderson PhD, RD (1996) Pet Ownership May Be a Factor in Improved Health of the Elderly, Journal of Nutrition For the Elderly, 15:3, 15-31, DOI: 10.1300/J052v15n03_02

Cordaro, Millie. "Pet loss and disenfranchised grief: Implications for mental health counseling practice." Journal of Mental Health Counseling 34.4 (2012): 283-294.

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