Pet Loss: Part One – Understanding Pet Grief
The loss of a pet can be one of the most devastating events in a pet parent’s life. Pet loss, and recovering after the loss of a pet, can be very difficult. Grieving the loss of a pet alone can even be so traumatic for people trying to figure out how to cope with the loss of a pet. Pet loss is such a part of our lives that there are even pet loss support groups and veterinarians who specialize in hospice care and pet grieving.
I’ve been a pet lover and owner my entire life, but I know that when it’s Dexter The Dog‘s time to go, I am going to be beyond devastated. Dexter is what dog folks refer to as my ‘heart dog.’ This is a dog who holds a special place in the heart of their guardian like no other dog has in the past. Obviously, all my pets have been special and loved, but there’s just this indescribable connection and bond that Dexter and I have. I thought it would be best to discuss the loss of a pet before I ever have to deal with losing Dexter.
Today, I will try to offer a few suggestions and ideas to help you cope with the loss of a pet. The first question that came to my mind is, what is ‘normal’ when grieving for the loss of a pet? I spoke with Dr. Monica Turenne, owner of Four Paws Veterinary Wellness in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Dr. Turenne specializes in hospice and in-home pet euthanasia. Dr. Turenne said, “The most important thing to understand about grief is that it is normal but it is far from typical. There is no ‘usual’ way a person should grieve or does grieve. Some people may cry, be angry, or show no emotion at all. Interestingly enough, the 5 Stages of Grief that so many know about are no longer considered to be helpful because of the very reason that grief is dynamic and fluid – it is not a step by step procedure.”
Hearing Dr. Turenne say that some people show no emotion at all makes me feel a bit better about myself. I’ve always been a person who seems to hold my emotions in. I’ve even had people say I was cold and had no emotions. But that is far from the truth. I’m very emotional, but do tend to keep everything inside. I’ve often felt numb during times of grief. My emotions escape my control only in the comfort and safety of privacy.
Patti Floyd, a certified euthanasia technician and owner of Sweetly Made Pet Behavior and Adoption Counseling, added, “Normal is subjective. Not everyone moves through the different stages at the same time, or in the same order. What a lot of people don’t expect is the “odd” reasons for grief to pop back up: seeing a similar animal or finding an old photo. Some aren’t ready for the intensity of the grief and may even chastise themselves with “it was just a dog.” I’ve seen everything from the stoic pat on the head type of good bye, to people throwing themselves on the floor wailing. Each person was normal in their own right.”
With so many raw emotions during pet loss, how are we to know what is normal grief and when we may need to seek help from professionals? How long should we expect to grieve over the loss of a pet and when should we expect to get back to our everyday lives without the immense pain and sorrow? Dr. Turenne had this to offer, “There is no timetable. But most will gradually return to a ‘new normal,’ learning how to relate to the deceased pet in a new way, cope with the pet’s physical absence, and heal even with the scar on their heart and soul. And during this time, resume their normal routines and activities.”
Dr. Turenne went on to explain, “Pet parents are often startled by the strength of the emotions they feel after losing their beloved pet. They expect they will feel the sadness but not often do they expect the depth of the sadness. I often counsel pet parents after a euthanasia or after their pet has died to be patient with themselves, as too often pet parents feel they need to somehow rush through the grief process and it should be all wrapped up in a week.”
She went on to explain that not everyone is able to cope with their pet’s passing. “For other people, grief can become ‘complicated’ – here their responses to the pet’s death do not dissipate over time and they are not able to adapt to a new normal. This inability to cope impairs their ability to resume their normal routines and activities. ‘Normal grief’ and ‘complicated grief’ features can look similar…but the difference, however, is that with “complicated grief” the emotions can also have signs of hopelessness, low self-esteem, problems accepting the pet’s death, self-destructive behaviors, and even suicidal thoughts. Seeking the help of a mental health professional for grief support can be helpful for any pet parent experiencing any type of grief – ‘normal grief’ and certainly for ‘complicated grief.’”
Patti Floyd suggests having a family conversation when bringing a new pet home to discuss end of life care. This is when people are not emotionally charged and can think through the process and plan. “Even if there isn’t a specific, written plan, knowing how your family feels and what is most important to them will help the process.”
As hard as it is to cope with pet loss, it’s important to remember the joy and love pets bring to our lives and the lives of our family members. Even science shows us that pets decrease stress and blood pressure. But we don’t need science to show us how much our pets bring to our lives. All we have to do is look into their eyes as they allow us to see deep into their souls, while they see into ours.
How have you coped with the loss of your pet? Tell me in the comments.
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