Grief

Coping With the Loss of Your Pet

What to do when your life has been turned upside-down with grief.

Posted May 12, 2019

 Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D.
Lucy Sarkis was a survivor, and we were lucky to have her.
Source: Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D.

Recently, our dog Lucy died at 16 years old. You may recall Lucy as Dog 2 in the posts "The Floor is Evil: Life with Dogs," as well as in "10 Tips for Helping Your Grieving Pet," written when Lucy lost her best friend Toby.

Lucy lived a good, long life, but losing her still hurts. Here are some things that have helped me through the grieving process. 

Expect to Feel "Out of Sorts"

I am not feeling like myself yet. As the days go by, I feel like I am getting closer to it. I am adapting to a "new normal." You may feel like things are out of control right now. You may be eating more or eating less than normal. You may be sleeping more than usual, or you may have insomnia. Your world has been turned upside-down. It's going to take a bit to feel some sense of normalcy. And that is completely normal.

Your Grief is Just as Valid 

People have told me that others, as well-meaning as they intended to be, made comments to them that losing a person "really hurts," as a way (I guess) of making them feel "better" about the loss of a pet. Some people just don't "get it"—keep a healthy distance from them as you cope with your loss. Losing your pet can cause you more intense grief than losing another family member or friend. Pets have a loyalty that is unsurpassed, and their love is completely unconditional. We can have a deeper bond with our pets than with others in our lives—and that is completely understandable and normal. Your grief can and will be just as intense as others' grief. 

There is No "Right" Way to Grieve

Some people will tell you that you should "get rid of" all your pet's belongings. Some will tell you to keep a photo of your pet in your home. Here's the thing—you do whatever you feel gives you comfort. I moved Lucy's food station out of the kitchen after she died because it was too hard to see it there without Lucy. You may want to keep your pet's food bowls and bed around for a bit, or you may need to put them away, give them away, or even throw them out. Whatever feels best to you is what works. 

You May Think You Hear or See Your Pet

Your brain is adjusting to the fact that your pet is no longer with you. It is a startling change when you wake up your house without your pet. The house seems much quieter and not as full of movement and happiness. You may briefly see what you at first thing is your dog, or you may hear your cat's collar. This is very normal. It is our brain's way of relearning a life without our pet. I joked to one of our dogs that I needed to have him wear a shirt or something because he was the same color as Lucy—and for a week after she died, my brain immediately thought it was her coming around the corner. This takes a little while to stop happening. It can be quite startling at first.

Having a Routine Helps

You and your pet had a schedule. Feedings, walks, snuggles ... and as humans, we tend to find comfort in schedules. If you and your pet took a walk at a certain time each day, do that walk—but take a different route as I did. Luckily, I have lovely neighbors that are also just as attached to their dogs, and when I saw them (and they didn't see Lucy) they were incredibly kind and understanding. The important thing is to get out and get moving. Exercise is one of the best ways of taking care of yourself when you are grieving.

Get Another Pet When You Want to Get Another Pet

You may have people tell you that you should wait to get a new pet until you get "closure" from the loss of this pet. My answer to that is, "Do whatever you feel is best." Read my post "Closure is Overrated" and learn how closure is not really a "thing." You never really get closure from a death. If you are grieving, you had a deep bond with your pet. My guess is you are fully and acutely aware that another pet will never be the pet you lost. To have people suggest that you may be trying to "replace" your pet is, frankly, insulting. If you had a close bond with your pet, you may be ready to get a new pet right away—or in a few months, or in a few years. The point is, whatever time you feel you are ready to get another pet is the time that you are ready. Period. Regardless of what well-meaning advice people might give you. Pets provide us comfort, they help us socialize with others, and they even can help stop panic attacks. The right time is whenever you decide it's the right time. 

Grief Is Not on Your Timetable

I wish I could hit a "fast-forward" button on your grief. Grief feels terrible. It also is a sign that you shared a deep, sacred love with a pet. I bet you wouldn't trade your grief for any of those times with your pet. Unfortunately, grief is the price we pay for loving deeply. It can feel really yucky at times. But I've been there, and people tell you it gets better—and to an extent, that is true. You start feeling less of the horrible feelings and more happy memories with your pet. This can take a while to happen. And I know the last thing you may be feeling right now is patience. Grief has its own timetable, so one of the best things to do is practice some really good self-care. Do something extra nice for yourself every day. When I went to work and crying a lot would be an issue, I'd tell myself that I would hold it together until 6 p.m. when I was done with work—and then the waterfall would start as soon as I got in the car. Grief does not care that we have to continue with our jobs. Grief is kind of a jerk that way. But you can tell it "not right now" and sometimes it listens.

Talk to Someone

Talking with others who have lost their pets can be cathartic and healing. There are several online forums for people who have experienced pet loss. Also, consider talking to a counselor that specializes in grief and pet loss. You just don't go to a counselor when you are feeling really, really bad—you also go to a counselor when you just need to talk through things with a nonjudgmental person. While a person can be a good counselor even if they haven't experienced pet loss, I certainly think it helps if someone has been through it. (Provided that they are a good counselor to start with!) It is not unusual for people who have lost a pet to consider suicide, particularly if you and your pet were very closely bonded or if you relied on your pet for assistance. If you are considering hurting yourself, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org. They are available 24 hours a day. 

I am very sorry about the loss of your pet. I know the two of you had a special bond because you're reading this article. Grief is kind of like getting hit by a wave. The waves get smaller over time, but every once in a while a big wave hits you. But it does get better. 

Copyright 2019 Sarkis Media.