Pets add so much to our families. They’re cute, funny, and provide endless love and friendship. The only negative about adding a pet to your family is that their life spans are a lot shorter than ours — maybe they live shorter lives because they love larger. Whatever the reason, the death of a pet is, unfortunately, an inevitable part of pet ownership. No matter how many times you’ve experienced pet loss, it never gets easier. That’s why we reached out to a mental health expert to ask for tips on how to cope with the death of a pet. Here’s how you can find comfort for yourself and your children, and what you can do to best support others going through this difficult transition.
Difficult Feelings Around Pet Loss
Queen Elizabeth II was famously quoted as saying, “grief is the price we pay for love.” Loss is powerful, but so is love — even when it comes to pets. Below, an expert explains the complicated feelings you can expect to have when you lose a beloved furry friend.
Alyssa Petersel Landsberger, LMSW, founder and CEO of mental health site MyWellBeing, confirms that for some people, pet loss can be similar to losing a loved one. She says that in a survey of over 3,000 pet owners on pet site Pumpkin, 78 percent said the depth of sadness they experienced with the loss of a pet was comparable to the death of a friend or family member.
The issue, however, is that many minimize the pain of losing an animal. “Surprising differences that make pet grief that much more difficult to cope with are that 90 percent of pet owners [in the survey] felt that society does not take pet grief as seriously as they should,” said Landsberger. Because others don’t take it seriously, the grieving party might not handle themselves delicately enough either, prolonging or worsening grief symptoms. Landsberger notes that in the survey, “72 percent of pet owners said they would not take time off of work to grieve their pet, and only 6 percent looked to their vet, a therapist, or support groups for help, despite many sharing they craved those supportive resources.”
Guilt Surrounding Death
As a pet owner, you are responsible for your pet’s well-being. Often, when a pet dies, owners may feel responsible, especially in instances where they chose to put their pet to sleep. “Gently remind yourself that feelings of guilt around your pet’s death are absolutely normal,” says Landsberger, adding that 62 percent of the survey respondents experienced regret, guilt, and the feeling that they had failed their pet.
How To Care For Yourself During Pet Loss
Mourning isn’t comfortable for anyone. However, it’s important that you take care of your mind, body, and soul in the midst of your grief, so you can move forward in a healthy manner. Your pet loved you — so now you need to love yourself, too.
Do your best to let go of guilty feelings surrounding your pet’s passing. “Piling shame on top of guilt on top of grief will only deepen your discomfort,” says Landsberger. She recommends acknowledging your guilt and allowing it to pass on. “Repeat to yourself, ‘I made the best possible decision with the information that I had.’”
Give Yourself Permission
Give yourself the time and space you need to grieve, recommends Landsberger. Grief is big, powerful, painful, and complex; it’s not something you can just “get over.” While you may feel pressure from your job or relationships to be fully present, remember that you’re a human. “Give yourself 5-10 minutes a day of uninterrupted time to grieve,” she says. “Put on a sad song, look at a photo of your pet, or think about loving memories, and really sit with how you’re feeling.” Keep in mind that grief won’t go away completely, either. You may continue to feel it for years, even during joyful times. It’s normal and okay.
Move Your Body
Try fitting 30 minutes of cardio exercise into your schedule, says Landsberger. Research shows that movement boosts feel-good chemicals that help your body and mind heal. Exercise is also a good channel for focus — it offers a reprieve from being stuck in your own head.
Seek Help from Others
Your close friends and family probably knew and loved your pet, too, so they understand the depth of your grief and will want to help you. Ask them to send you daily texts, reminders, and funny memes to help you smile, suggests Landsberger. And don’t hesitate to seek professional help from a therapist or support group. You can also check out this Pet Grief Support Group hosted by Pumpkin and MyWellBeing to talk to like-minded people going through difficult times.
How To Tell a Child About the Death of a Pet
Pets are wonderful additions to families, especially those with children. Research from the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry notes that children raised with pets have high self-confidence and self-esteem, and they benefit from the companionship, affection, and physical activity a pet can provide. Pet loss, however, is often a child’s first experience with death, and guiding them through these painful feelings can feel overwhelming. Here’s how to handle it.
Instead of telling your child that Fluffy went off to a farm where she can run and play forever, Landsberger recommends facing the issue gently, but honestly. “Leverage the opportunity for bonding, connection, and support. Ask the child proactively how they are feeling, and share openly, with a blend of compassion, strength, and vulnerability, how you are feeling,” she says. Remember that your child is looking to you for how they should react to complicated feelings, Landsberger adds. Show them that grief is normal, and that it’s a good thing to look back on your pet’s life with love.
How To Support Someone Going Through Pet Loss
There are books and articles aplenty about how to support a friend when they’ve lost a loved one, but helping someone through pet loss is not as widespread a topic. If you aren’t the one that lost a pet, but you love someone who’s grieving, it’s important you know how to help them. Here’s what to do.
Provide Tangible Care
When someone is in mourning, it’s hard for them to think clearly. So while your inquiry about what you can do to help is well-meaning, it may put an extra mental burden on your friend. Landsberger recommends providing concrete ways to help, like offering to assist your friend with chores or making them dinner. Help them research care resources, like therapy and support groups. Love them with your hands and feet as well as your heart and mind.
As simple as it sounds, demonstrating to your friend that you’re still there and that you still care can be incredibly healing. “After a few weeks, support for community can disappear, but the grief is still there. Set a reminder in your calendar to check in, so they’re reminded how much you care when they may be at their loneliest,” Landsberger recommends.
The Bottom Line
Grief is a journey, and that applies to pet loss as well. “The grief you feel now is another manifestation of how much love you felt with your pet, and how tender your relationship was while they were alive,” Landsberger concludes. “Their love will always remain with you — and that, in the end, is a beautiful thing.”