What is “normal” when grieving the loss of an animal companion?
Below are questions frequently asked regarding the process of mourning an animal companion. If you have a question of a general nature which is not included, please submit your inquiry and it will be added to this page.
1. Grief responses within the normative range can be divided into emotional and behavioral responses:
Emotional responses include denial, inability to accept the loss, intense tearfulness, disorientation, insomnia, disbelief, shock, loss of appetite, anger, guilt, isolation, depression, ruminating endlessly about the final days/hours, feeling that you will never be the same, feeling like you are going crazy, and feeling that you cannot tolerate the pain.
Behavioral responses are widely varied and may include wanting to sleep with the departed companion’s toys or blankets, avoiding sleeping in the bed you shared with your pet, being unable to remove his possessions, continuing a routine as if your companion were still alive, a compulsion to memorialize your pet, or withdrawing from those who do not support your grief (or even those who do).
Fleeting suicidal ideation may appear connected to a wish to join our departed friend, but if such ruminations linger or progress to thoughts of a plan, immediate intervention is required. Such considerations could signal a depression that is developing or has been present for a while and is now intensified by the loss of your companion.
2. Guilt – the persistent obsession of pet loss.
The most difficult guilt may follow the excruciating decision to euthanize, even when there is no other humane option! Even those who devoted all to their animal’s life and health can experience devastating guilt. We ruminate about our failures to be the perfect steward, conduct a harsh retrospective of our worthiness to have such a devoted companion and find ourselves lacking. Distorted conclusions can plague us for weeks, even months when there is no logical basis for such condemnation.
3. How long will it take to feel better? When will the sadness go away? Should it go away?
There is no timetable for mourning a loss. You will mourn in proportion to the quality (not necessarily the length) and the significance of y our relationship. Those whose animal friends were their only source of companionship may find it very difficult to move on. The routine and structure provided by caring for an animal – even one who is very ill – can leave a schedule empty and home very lonely.
An animal acquired during a happy time in a relationship or memorable life transition can become symbolic of those moments. It may feel as if they have taken those memories with them when they die, that our connection to those events is now lost. The bereft person may feel that life will never be good again.
This can also be true of those who worked with their animals as professional partners, as well as animals who were the center of family life. You should expect the initially intense feelings to lessen over time, within a few weeks to a few months. Some may feel that by letting go of their grief they are ending their bond to their friend. But after mourning comes a peace in which the true legacy of this precious relationship stands the test of time. We must give up our attachment to their death to renew our connection within this new context.
4. Common feelings following a decision to euthanize.
Even when abundantly clear and medically indicated, the decision to euthanize can leave bitterness, regret and incredible guilt. Life or death decisions, even when suffering is evident are not easily made nor should they be. Second guessing ruminations after the fact are common despite the most compelling evidence that this was the most human decision!
After your companion has died you may imagine another course of treatment, another day, an earlier intervention, would have changed the outcome. You would usually be wrong. Often our recollection of those final moments is hazy with grief and we may minimize or forget the reasons that led to this merciful conclusion. You may feel your decision was premature or that you waited too long. You may feel you colluded with the medical recommendation against the best interests of your pet, labeling yourself a murderer. You may therefore assign the guilt for the loss to yourself instead of the illness or event which truly took the life of your pet. Again, you would be wrong to do so, but this does not prevent the most responsible and loving pet stewards in the world from engaging in self-blame.
Those who decide to remain with their companions as they pass on may replay traumatic memories of the moment; those who cannot bear to witness their pet’s passing may reprimand themselves for not being there. Such thoughts are distracting and worthless self-torture. The reality is that your compassionate courage on behalf of your friend has mercifully ended their suffering, while your agony at their loss now begins.
Our intellect and powers of reason take a while to catch up with a broken heart. These precious creatures are not with us for very long and the brevity of their lives adds more weight to a decision regarding terminal illness. Euthanasia is one of the most traumatic aspects of pet loss and can become an agonizing distraction from the work of mourning. But it is one final grace we can give for all the comfort they offered us during their lives – to end suffering in a dignified, painless and humanely loving manner.
Ultimately, we do not determine the life and death of our pets, even though we may assign ourselves such control. Most animals who are euthanized by loved ones are facing chronic untreatable illness or catastrophic injuries. It is only a matter of time. An extra week to have them with us may be at the expense of horrific suffering on their part. To end their pain we must willingly bear the associated agony of transient doubt.
5. When trauma is a component of pet loss.
Euthanasia, among other circumstances, adds a traumatic component to an already devastating loss. Symptoms of PTSD, in which nightmares, obsessive thoughts, panic and recurring images deny us peace of mind or sleep. We feel irritable, self-critical and ruminate constantly about the same decisions or circumstances.
Witnessing accidental death, inadvertently causing death or not knowing the whereabouts or status of your animal companion’s life can result in severely traumatic reactions in some people. If symptoms as those described above persist over weeks or months, please consult with a mental health professional. Talking about such feelings can offer renewed perspective and liberation from self-doubt.
6. Unresolved or complicated grief reactions.
Sometimes, the loss of an animal companion occurs within or at the end of a series of other major losses. These can include loss of health, family members, friends, independence, employment, financial or marital status, or other important relationships or life events. The end of the animal’s life may seem like a final ending to your own and exacerbate clinical depression.
If such symptoms are not resolving and there are no supports in your life to move through a series of significant losses or crises, you may wish to seek professional help. Most communities have mental health centers where services are offered on a sliding scale, so if finances are an issue and you do not have mental health benefits; please consult the mental health agencies in your community.
7. I thought I heard, saw, felt my departed pet. Am I out of my mind?
Over the past decade, time and time again, people hesitatingly reveal instances in which their sense of sight, smell, touch and/or dreams indicated their departed friend may have been present. They worry about sharing such experiences with anyone else for fear they’ll be seen as having lost it! They may see a fleeting shadow, hear a soft whinny from the barn, feel a strong presence in the room, or feel little paws walking up the comforter at night. They may dream vividly and awaken with the sweet sense of their pet’s smell and warmth in the room certain they were briefly reunited with their pet.
Animal companions are spiritual creatures. The Indians of Alaska build “spirit houses” along beautiful overlooks, believing it takes a year for a loved one’s spirit to complete a transition to the next world. There is no reason to analyze such experiences. What is real to a person is real. Animals have a divinity and majesty that is unknowable at times. Not all in life can be explained.
8. Is there anything I can do to feel better right now?
This is a frequent and understandable question, given the degree of suffering. There is little you can to abruptly end the intensity of grief which is an appropriate and normal human response when significant loss occurs. Do not complicate or hold onto your grief as it ebbs and flows. Do not analyze it as a pathological reaction. Know that the feelings will grow more tolerable with time as the legacy of beautiful memories inevitably replaces the sharpness of loss. But you can provide some intermittent relief to yourself by spending time with loved ones, attending events which may distract your attention for even an hour in grief’s early stages, or beginning a process of memorializing your companion.
Choose to recall the entire movie of your life together and not just the snapshot of its ending. Death does not represent the totality of any relationship, but requires us to transform a physically present relationship to its spiritual counterpart. We understandably resist this transformation. Acceptance can ease the process and relieve the agony of refusal to let go.
Take good care of yourself while grieving. Do not go too long without sleep (consult your doctor if insomnia persists beyond three days), try to eat and stay in close contact with those who understand. Attend a pet bereavement group, memorialize your friend and distract yourself with brief journeys, volunteer work if you can manage, and physical exercise. Do not hold back the tears. Do not try to bury or hide your grief. It is appropriate and demands expression.
It may feel intolerable now, BUT YOU WILL SURVIVE. The day will come when the softness of sweet memories will bring warm smiles of recollection. We are resilient and must face the prospect of death throughout our lives, but are never fully prepared when it takes our loved ones. The agony and intensity of grief responses following pet loss can surprise even those who anticipate the significance of the loss. Be patient. Be kind. Consider this: Would you have rather this relationship never entered your life? Was it worth every tear you now shed? The answer to this question can bring acceptance and surrender to the entire experience of sharing your life with an animal companion. It is worth everything.
9. When should I adopt another pet? Is it disloyal?
The motivation and timing to invite another animal into your life is very personal. There is no right or wrong way to consider this. Some people need the spirit of animal around them and feel a reduced quality of life without their presence. The capacity to love and deeply appreciate the profound contributions of sentient beings does not end with their death. It can leave an aching void in an empty heart that nothing else will satisfy.
It is not disloyal to the life of your departed pet to give shelter to another of his brethren, but a way to further honor his place and that of all animal in our lives. Nothing and no other creature will ever replace the experience of your beloved friend. But the heart does not permanently contract with loss. Thankfully, there is no end to the capacity of the human heart which expands again with the glory of renewal.
Some people, feeling the agony of loss, think they could never go through this again and vow to never adopt another animal. But once discovered and celebrated in the soul, the capacity and need to love an animal does not disappear. There is always the future chance that some other sentient being will move you to offer a home. Decide to not decide during this difficult time when perspective is clouded by grief. When the time is right, the eyes of some sweet and knowing creature may capture you again.
10. Available options for memorializing companion animals.
Animal companions can be memorialized in many ways. It is possible to post a tribute on this site (and not just picture with date of birth and death, but your story with your companion) or others devoted to honoring the lives of animal companions.
There are some beautiful cemeteries which that offer a peaceful final resting place for animals, or ashes can be scattered or buried along a favorite trail or shared place. Some people keep some or all of the ashes to have them buried with them when they die. You can donate to great animal related causes in their name, volunteer with an animal organization or journal about their lives. You can be moved to create a garden, plant trees or create an altar with pictures and mementos from your pet.
You may wish to hold a funeral or memorial service to formally and publicly acknowledge your loss. You may send out death announcements with a picture, create holiday cards. Creating video or photo albums, clothing or pieces of jewelry that bear your pet’s image are all available options that can comfort in the early stages of intense grief. You will know and feel what is right for you.
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