"Dogs (and Cats) leave Paw Prints on our Hearts"
The loss of a pet is never easy to deal with. The grief and pain can become overwhelming and it is difficult to imagine how you can move on. As much as we’d like for us to be able to live with our furry friends forever, it is inevitable that we will one day have to say goodbye.
Most of us have very strong bonds of love with our pets. Pets can help make you active and social, provide you with the love and care you need to get through difficult parts of your life, and even give you a sense of purpose.
That’s why, when you lose a pet, it’s completely natural to feel grief and sorrow. People, especially ones that do not have pets, may give you all kinds of advice from "get another pet right away", to "get rid of all reminders of your pet so you can move on", but only you can say what is right for you and how you need to grieve. So be gentle with yourself and give yourself the time to mourn.
But just like any other kind of loss, we can only mourn for so long and our beloved fur babies would not want us to stop living and taking pleasure from life. While the grief will linger for a long time, coping with it in a healthy way is necessary for us to be able to keep going.
How to Cope With The Loss of a Pet
There are plenty of ways to cope with grief and loss, but only some of these are healthy while others are not. There is no one way to feel grief, since everyone’s experience and emotions are different. Some of us may feel the loss immediately, while for others it may take time to really sink in.
Regardless, there are a few ways to cope with loss that seem to be universal.
An important part of allowing yourself to mourn is to accept and acknowledge the loss itself. This is definitely not an easy thing to do.
Because our pets have their own role in our homes and families, it may seem so reflexive and natural to enter the house and expect them to be lying in their favorite spot, or come running to greet you at the door.
When you experience loss, it can be difficult to fully wrap your head around the fact that they are gone, but doing so is important in helping you move on. You can take your time with this - for some people it may take a few days, while for others it can take weeks or months.
Take the time to adjust to the loss as you need it. Don’t try to overwhelm yourself with stimuli to avoid thinking about it, but allow yourself to get used to their absence, just like you took the time to build your relationship with them at the start.
Doing so will help you come to terms with it in a healthier way.
Allow Yourself To Mourn
When faced with grief, our first instinct is to pretend we’re completely fine. This is most often an attempt to appear strong in front of others, but can be counterproductive in helping us heal.
The emotions you feel when you lose a pet are complicated and ugly - you may be torn apart by sorrow and guilt, and may not know how to deal with it. Holding it in and keeping yourself from feeling these emotions will only make them build up, and make the pain worse.
While we may have to put up a strong face in front of others - especially if you have kids who may seem to be more deeply affected than we are - your feelings are just as important and you should allow yourself the space and time to feel the pain and sorrow without holding back. When you allow yourself to feel, you are able to process your emotions and work through them in a healthy way, so you can figure out how to take steps towards healing.
Let Yourself Remember
In the initial days, even thinking about your pet may be painful because the reality of the loss may still not have sunk in fully. At this time, it’s difficult to go over any memories you have with your pet - happy or sad - and you may not even want to see anything that reminds you of your pet.
Of course, you should take your time with it, but embracing these memories slowly, in small steps, can help you process your feelings and eventually come to terms with the loss. Taking the time to remember your pet for the happy life they lived with you will help you see the good memories they shared with you and thus minimize some of the feelings of guilt and sorrow. Knowing that you were able to give your pet a good life can be helpful in relieving the pain and allow you to move on without regrets.
It can be even harder to deal with losses when you or others around you have linked your identity to your pet. As an example, you may be the person with the giant dog in the neighborhood, or you may start thinking of yourself as Fido's mom or Meow's dad and unconsciously adjust your self-image accordingly.
This can make it difficult to move on when you lose your pet because a crucial element of your self-identity is now missing. You will always be your fur baby's mom or dad, but you are still you. Again, it may take time to adjust to this new way of thinking of yourself, and it may take some folks longer than others. But looking at the world in terms of what you have, rather than what’s lost, is an important part of mourning and healing.
Looking For Meaning
When you lose a pet, it’s completely natural to start thinking about things like death and the purpose of life. The grief can make you lose the will to live, and things may not feel like they’re worth it anymore. Things that make you happy may feel like a chore, and having to follow a regular routine may make you angry because you feel like there is a gaping hole in your life, but the world continues to move on.
These feelings are natural, so trying to fight them is pointless. Instead, process the feelings in a healthy way - ask yourself why you feel the way you feel, and what you can do to help yourself feel better. You may want to find new things to keep you busy, and may even have to force yourself to step out of that little circle of sadness for a while.
Again, this is not easy, and different people may need different amounts of time. Depending on your relationship with your pet, their age, the circumstances of their death and other such factors, you may feel different feelings which can take varying amounts of time to process.
Finding meaning in life once you’ve acknowledged the loss is an important step in healing because the act of purposely going out and returning to the world again will help you remember that you are still here, and that you have to keep on living.
Meaning for people may have different implications. For some, it may mean finding a new hobby to occupy their time. For others, adopting a pet may help fill that hole. Do whatever’s best for you, and remember that there is no ‘right answer’ for what gives your life meaning. You are the one who gets to decide that.
Accept Help and Support
When you face a serious loss, it can be very tempting to keep your feelings to yourself and never talk about them with anyone. Again, this is not healthy, because these feelings can build up and eat you up from the inside.
Accept support from the people around you, because there is no way you can really ‘get over’ the grief you feel - it’s only how much you manage to get used to it. There may be days where you are fine, and then others where something triggers the memories you had and you are overwhelmed once again. An important part of recovering and healing from the loss is to have people around you who can help you deal with the pain.
Talking to others who may have gone through the same thing can help you figure out healthy coping mechanisms. It can also help you feel seen, because there is someone else who understands what you’re going through, so their words of affirmation and condolences don’t feel like shallow, meaningless ones.
This isn’t to say that people who don’t understand are not sincere, but when you’re suffering from grief, you may feel like nobody understands you, and you are alone in your pain. Knowing that others out there have been through the same thing can help you feel less alone.
In some cases, grief can become persistent, and may start hindering your ability to function. There is no need to be ashamed about this, and you should get yourself professional help if you feel like you need it.
Pets are a special part of our lives. The relationships and bonds we have with our pets are just as important, and sometimes even more, than the ones we have with other people. Losing a pet is therefore extremely painful, and allowing yourself to mourn is an important part of healing.