It was one of my first few weeks of college when I lost my cat. It was unexpected and the sting of the loss hit hard. I only had one class that day and felt I needed to skip out and let myself grieve. I still remember my English Professor’s response when I let her know. I don’t recall what she said exactly, but it was something to the effect of, “It’s just a cat. You’re an adult. Get over it. Class is starting.” This was a big event in my world, and I felt shocked by how dismissive she seemed towards the grief that I was going through. The experience helped me to learn that the loss of a beloved companion, even a cat can unearth very strong emotions and intense grief. Pets are a part of our family too. So, losing a pet can feel just as devastating as losing a loved one.
The death of an animal is always difficult for us humans because we have such strong emotional ties to them. We love our pets as if they were members of our own family. When one of these animals passes away, it’s like losing someone close to us. It hurts just as deeply as the loss of a human loved one because of the strong attachment that exists.
Pets bring companionship, fun and joy to our lives. They can add structure to your day, keep you active and social, help you to overcome setbacks and challenges in life and even provide a sense of meaning or purpose. Pets have a special way of being there for us. They don’t complain and they don’t judge or criticize. They alleviate our anxiety and bring comfort in ways that humans cannot. Plain and simple: the loss of a pet hurts.
Losing a Companion Animal such as an Emotional Support Animal can cause acute grief, and it may be worth finding a Grief Counselor to help you process your feelings of grief.
Heartache and grief are natural responses to the pain of loss. As with grieving the loss of a loved one, it takes time to heal from the loss of a pet. The grieving process can be gradual. Additionally, the grief process may not always look like progress. Grief can happen in waves. Occasionally grief may sneak up on you and hit you by surprise. You may have some highs and lows through the process. Be encouraged that this is okay.
There really isn’t any “normal” timeline for grief. The length of the grieving process varies from person to person. Some individuals grieve intensely for months while others take years before they begin to accept the reality of what has happened. You can expect to feel a wide range of emotions after experiencing a loss. Feeling shocked, angry, sad, lonely or anxious are normal. Experiencing intense feelings like these means that you cared deeply and are mourning the separation. It’s nothing to be ashamed of!
You don’t have to have a formal funeral or bury your pet in a pet cemetery to have a Memorial. A Memorial can be as simple as gathering the people who are closest to you and intentionally taking a few moments to express your feelings. It’s a way to put your thoughts and feelings to action. Recalling what your pet meant to you can help you to begin processing your grief. It shouldn’t be stressful, but a simple way to honor their memory and celebrate their life.
Much like my experience that day with my professor, well-meaning friends and family may try to cheer you up by making suggestions. Sometimes those recommendations come across as let’s just say… less than helpful. When you are grieving it’s important to release yourself from the pressure of others to act or feel a certain way. Our pet companions bring us comfort without judgement, and it’s important to carry that with you. It’s okay to be upset, to be angry, to cry and to feel sad. It’s even acceptable to feel joy for having had them in your life. You don’t need to feel judgement or be embarrassed by the opinion of others. Time heals and life has its own way of helping us to “move on.”
If you’ve lost a pet recently, chances are you still miss him every day. You might think about how he would react to certain situations, wonder what his favorite food was, remember the last thing he said to you, or wish you could hear his ‘voice’ again. These thoughts and emotions are perfectly natural. They don’t necessarily indicate that you should get rid of all reminders of your pet. Instead, try to incorporate some into your daily routine.
Therapist Andrew Marshall shares his experience with grieving a pet. He shares how, even as a therapist, he got it wrong. He says the key to coping with the loss is that “you should accept the death of the pet and also understand the pain you are going through, not ignore it.”
It’s human nature to try to avoid pain. Oftentimes, we attempt avoiding pain at all costs. When we experience a loss, we’re faced with pain directly, and we can choose to face it or dismiss it. If we try to ignore it, it will unfortunately just keep popping up. Just like the old arcade game Whack-a-Mole… unresolved pain will pop up unexpectedly until you sit with it and allow yourself to feel it. The best thing that we can do is to acknowledge our hurt and pain. Face it. Grieve. Then we can start to heal from the pain of the loss.
As you explore your feelings surrounding the loss, there are a few key things to get curious about. Why did you originally get a pet? This question will help you to realize what you gained the most as a pet owner. Additionally, it’s good to consider what your feelings are about death in general. If you failed to grieve a loss previously, you may be feeling the pain more intensely with this loss. Writing down your feelings can help you to process and will help you to begin to resolve past experiences and feelings that may need attention.
It can take a bit of time to get to the place where you can assess what you’ve learned from your experience both with your pet and with the loss you have experienced. Give yourself permission to have the big feelings. After all, it is a part of how you grieve, learn and grow.
Stress can take a toll on your physical body. Be sure to give yourself the space you need to explore your feelings, but don’t neglect your physical needs. Getting adequate sleep, rest, healthy food and daily exercise can all serve to boost your mood and immune system so that you don’t get depleted and become sick.
Opening up to a trusted friend about how you feel is an important step to healing from the loss you’ve experienced. If you’re able to find another person who has also experienced pet loss, it will help you to feel less alone in your grief. At first, talking about it may feel very uncomfortable, but it is necessary.
If that thought makes you want to run and hide, start by writing out how you feel. Being an active participant in the process versus trying to distract yourself, self-medicate or stuff your feelings down will only help you in the long run.
While it is a difficult experience to walk through, it’s important to know that the hard times will pass. It may not feel like it for a while, but I promise, it won’t be hard forever. You will walk through it and the pain of this moment will pass.
The gap left by the loss may feel so large and overwhelming that it makes you wonder how you’ll get through. If you had daily rituals with your pet, those moments could cause the pain to feel magnified. You don’t want to simply distract yourself, however it can be beneficial to fill that “empty space” with something constructive. In place of a daily walk, you could incorporate another form of exercise or choose to walk with a friend or family member. Simultaneously, completing the activity with a friend can help you talk and share memories.
Grief looks different for everyone. If you find that you’re struggling after some time and the symptoms of grief persisting cause you to have a hard time functioning on a daily basis, it’s always wise to seek professional help. When you experience major losses, it’s wise to process in a safe space, with a counselor. If you take the step to truly explore your feelings, the mourning process may unearth some unresolved feelings or buried grief that would be best processed with a counselor. Be patient with yourself and give yourself grace. Seek professional help if you need it.
When we lose our pets, we grieve just like anyone else who has lost someone they loved dearly. It takes some time before we get over this grief. I am not suggesting that you just go out and try to replace your pet and ignore your feelings. This shouldn’t be step 1 of your grieving process. It’s important to experience the loss so that you can grow through it.
However, if you find yourself missing having a companion in the form of a furry friend around, consider getting another one. A new pet won’t replace your old one, but a pet sure can help you through a tough time! If you’re not quite ready for that, you can always hang out with a friend who has a pet or seek out a counseling service that deploys therapy dogs. There’s something special about how animals can help us to recover from hardship and loss.
Due to the new Department of Transportation (DOT) policy, Emotional Support Animals are NO longer allowed to fly in airplane cabins for free. However, Psychiatric Service Dogs are eligible.
The benefits of an Emotional Support Animal certification and a Psychiatric Service Dog certification are drastically different. Fortunately for you, American Service Pets’ network of active board certified doctors can help you find the right path to certification. To find out whether you need an ESA or PSD letter, take our easy, three-step Pet Owner Survey!
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