Mary Craig, DVM, CHPV (certified hospice and palliative care), owner of Gentle Goodbye Veterinary Palliative Care & At-Home Euthanasia, serving Westchester County, New York, and Fairfield County, Connecticut. GentleGoodbye.org
Bottom Line: A vet’s guide to the grieving process
It can be difficult to deal with the death of a pet. Our furry companions ask so little of us and give us so much, yet the social “rules of grieving” are different for pets versus people. So when you have to say good-bye to one, you may not know what to do. And although it may seem like you’ll never heal, you can work through your pain.
• Acknowledge what you’re feeling. Emotions run the gamut from anger (Why didn’t I get a diagnosis sooner?) to denial (How can this be happening?) to guilt (Did I choose euthanasia too soon? Not soon enough?). Or you may be deeply sad or simply feel relief that your pet is no longer suffering. All of these feelings are natural, and you may experience some or all of them. Let yourself feel them fully.
• Expect the unexpected. Sometimes the death of a pet stirs up memories of past losses—maybe your mother who passed away years ago loved to play a game with your dog, for example. If you have other pets, they actually will mourn in their own ways. You may notice them having less energy and/or appetite. Maybe they’ll want to be alone more than usual or be more clingy than usual. Give them extra love, and allow them their time to grieve, too.
• Memorialize your pet. Part of the reason our grief seems overwhelming is that there are no set mourning rituals for pets, as there are when a person dies. Many people find it tremendously comforting to hold a memorial service for a pet…scatter the animal’s ashes in a favorite spot in the yard…plant a tree in the pet’s memory…make a photo book…or donate to a rescue organization. It also may help to share memories in a pet-bereavement chat room or through a pet-loss hotline. There is a list of links to pet-loss websites and chat rooms on my site GentleGoodbye.org under “Grief Resources.”
• Be patient. You may feel this grief for longer than you expect. Just as with human loss, feelings mellow and the pain becomes softer as time goes on. But if you feel “stuck” or can’t function, seek the support of a mental health professional. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad for what you are going through.
• Listen to your heart when it comes to getting a new companion. There’s no right or wrong decision or right or wrong time to adopt another animal. Accept that your lost pet will continue to have a special place in your heart, but that there’s always room for more love.