Pet Loss… grief and bereavement… the process of mourning…
Pet loss can be so terribly painful. As a veterinarian, this is something I see, and feel, almost daily. I feel it through my clients, their families and children, through my own pain and that of my staff members. As a pet owner, I’ve been there too. The grief can be overwhelming at times. It is the loss of a family member, a cherished companion, a warm friend that provided unconditional love and asked for so little in return.
There is so much misunderstanding about grief and loss in general, but even more so when the subject is pet loss. Not everyone understands the pain and the grief many animal lovers feel when they lose a beloved pet, which can leave the bereaved feeling isolated in their grief.
The process of grief has been defined into stages, some of which are briefly described below.
The reality of death has not yet been accepted by the bereaved. He or she feels stunned and bewildered, almost as if everything is “unreal.” Denial makes it difficult to accept that your pet is really gone. It’s hard to imagine that your pet won’t greet you when you come home or curl up to nap in their favorite spot.
The grief stricken person often lashes out at family, friends, themselves, God, the veterinarian or the world in general. Bereaved people often also experience feelings of guilt or fear during this stage.
Depression is a natural consequence of grief, but can leave one feeling powerless to cope with your feelings. Extreme depression robs you of motivation and energy, causing you to dwell upon your sorrow. The bereaved person may feel intensely sad, hopeless, drained and helpless. The instensity of the grief may make it difficult to concentrate or make decisions. These feelings may wax and wane, but usually gradually decrease over time.
Acceptance comes with healing, and often the recognition that the pet may now be in a better place, safe and free from pain. Acceptance that our pet’s lives are relatively short compared to ours; a painful reality for many of us.
The depth and intensity of the mourning process depends on many factors. The age of the owner, circumstances surrounding the death, relationship of the animal to the owner and to other family members, are all significant. Recently experiencing the death of a significant person in the owner’s life can also affect how the pet’s death is handled. Usually, children recover more quickly, while the elderly may take the longest. Sometimes, the death of a pet will finally enable the bereaved to mourn the loss of a person (or another pet) whose death had not yet been accepted.
Grief is a natural process and the healthiest thing to do is allow yourself to feel the pain and work through it. Share your thoughts with friends and family who understand your attachment. The most important thing is to realize you are not alone. Many people do understand the depth of your loss. And healing will come with time. Meanwhile, take care of yourself by eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep and put aside unnecessary chores. You have enough on your mind and you need some time for yourself. Give yourself time to heal and recover from your loss. Write a poem, make a scrapbook of memories or a photo memorial to honor your friend. Be patient with yourself… healing from grief takes time.
Don’t hesitate to use all the resources available to you including reading, speaking with the clergy or support groups, visiting support websites and individual counseling. There are many resources sited at the end of this article.
Children & Pet Loss
Typically, honesty works best with children. You are the best judge of how much information they can handle, but the truth is generally the most effective. If they are led to believe the pet just “went away”, they will grieve without closure and sometimes wonder what they did wrong to make them leave or wait in anguish for their return. A memorial service can help children understand the pet is gone permanently and facilitate closure. Discussing your own grief can help them realize their feelings are a normal and acceptable response to loss.
A Tribute to Pets…..
They come into our lives suddenly,
and often unexpectedly.
The ball of fur with liquid brown eyes,
so willing to be a loyal friend.
Looking only for a meal and a kind word,
offering their hearts to us without restraint.
Their unbridled joy at our entrance,
their unconditional love that never fails us.
The warmth on a lonely night,
the shared understanding of an eternal friend.
The void they fill is exceeded only by the void they leave behind.
The gift they give us is unmatched,
the loyalty incomparable,
the love immeasurable.
Their paw prints remain forever on our hearts.
– Elizabeth F. Baird, DVM
University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine
352-392-2235, ext. 5268 (M-F 7-9pm ET)
Pinellas Animal Foundation – (727) 347-7387 (PETS)
American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA)
1-877-GRIEF-10 (1-877-474-3310) – 24 Hours
This is a direct line to ASPCA’s psychologist and grief counselor, Dr. Stephanie LaFarge, PhD
Pet Loss Books, Reading Lists:
Grieving the Death of a Pet by Betty J. Carmack, Augsburg Fortress Publishers, ISBN 080664348X (January, 2003)
In this book, Carmack draws from her experience of counseling more than two thousand people who have lost a beloved pet, as well as the loss of her Rocky and other furry friends. She offers the book as a kind of pet-loss support group to counter “a world that reminds us repeatedly that grief for an animal doesn’t count as much as grief for a person.” (Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Surviving the Heartbreak of Choosing Death for Your Pet: Your Personal Guide for Dealing with Pet Euthanasia by Linda Mary Peterson, Greentree Publishing, ISBN 0965257223 (1997)
From a customer who purchased this book: “Having to choose death for my best friend of 20 years was incredibly painful and brought feelings of guilt, despair, relief and depression. At the time, I felt I might just be losing my mind. This book helped me work through all of my feelings. It gave me a peaceful feeling. It let me know, that I was not alone. There are a number of useful references in the back.”
Goodbye, Friend: Healing Wisdom for Anyone Who Has Ever Lost a Pet by Gary Kowalski, Stillpoint Publishing, ISBN 1883478227, (1997)
Kowalski’s book is full of sound, compassionate advice to get you through the loss of your pet(s). The book addresses animals’ grieving; their life spans; their growth, illnesses and needs. These are similar to ours: need to eat, to exercise, to sleep, to have fun, to enjoy companionship and to expect routine. Kowalski includes advice on how to take care of yourself after the death of a pet and the importance of honesty when talking with children about this event. (summarized from a review by Independent Publisher)
My Personal Pet Remembrance Journal by Enid Traisman, Dove Lewis Emergency Animal Hospital, ISBN 0965113108 (1998)
This gentle and enchanting journal is an excellent place to celebrate the life and passing of a much-cherished animal companion. It encourages a deep and healing introspection, gives tribute to the unique gifts of out animal companons, and documents our path into, up, and beyond the dark hollow of mourning and grief. (summarized from a review by Best Friends Animal Sanctuary Workshop)
Goodbye My Friend by Herb and Mary Montgomery, Montgomery Press, ISBN 1879779005 (2001)
This soft cover, 31 page booklet offers the reader comfort by providing a variety of personal stories written by different individuals who have experienced the loss of a pet. Stories range from sentimental, to educational (helping children) to uplifting, and provide an opportunity for individual reflection.
A Final Act of Caring by Herb and Mary Montgomery, Montgomery Press, ISBN 1879779021 (1993)
This soft cover booklet provides comfort to pet owners who must deal with end-of-life decisions for their pets. It encourages people to seek medical facts and emotional support from their veterinarian in order to clearly understand all options available. It includes information about euthanasia.
Journey Through Pet Loss by Deborah Antinori, YokoSpirit Publications, ISBN 0966884817 (Revised edition 2000) Audio Cassette
Journey Through Pet Loss is an insightful, creative, and heartfelt odyssey through the loss of a beloved companion animal. As an experienced drama therapist, Deborah Antinori understands the importance of using creativity and imagery to help move grief from the intellectual realm, to the emotional one. Anyone suffering from the loss of a special friend should experience Deborah’s unique approach to healing. She provides valuable ideas in a way that feels very personal and meaningful. (review by Dana Durrance, formerly of Argus)
Books for Children:
Dog Heaven by Cynthia Rylant, Scholastic Trade; ISBN: 0590417010 (September 1995) Ages 4-8
In this joyfully imagined place, God is a smiling, white-haired gentleman who watches the goings-on as dogs run and bark, play with kids, eat dog biscuits in cat shapes, and sleep on fluffy clouds. It’s also a place where dogs patiently wait for old friends: “They will be there at the door. Angel dogs.” Rylant’s kindergarten concept of the hereafter is cheerful but not humorous or glib. A book for parent-child sharing and discussion. From Booklist (Stephanie Zvirin)
Cat Heaven by Cynthia Rylant, Scholastic Trade; ISBN: 0590100548 (September 1997) Ages 4-8
Writing in rhyme, Rylant assures readers that all cats already know the way to heaven’s yellow door, and once past it will never want for laps, toys, or full kitty dishes. Heaven is a place with trees and clouds to perch on, fields to leap through–and a garden full of tall flowers, where God walks “with a good black book and a kitty asleep on His head.” Comforting and amiable, this is tinged with gentle humor. From Kirkus Reviews
I’ll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm, Crown Pub; ISBN: 0517572656 (May 1989) Ages 4-8
This is a wonderful book about healing and bonding. It is the story of a young boy and his dog Elfie. When Elfie gets old and dies the boy sadly buries Elfie after openly sharing his grief. He vows that he will tell every pet he ever has that he will always love him. The book helps young children understand death and provides a valuable lesson that it is always good to tell a loved one, human or pet, that you will always love them.
A Special Place for Charlee: A Child’s Companion Through Pet Loss by Debra Morehead, Partners in Publishing LLC,
ISBN 0965404900 (1996) Ages 4-12
This is tender, touching story will help parents guide their children through the emotions of pet loss. The story shares the experience of a young boy as he deals with the loss of his beloved dog. Readers will learn that it is normal to have a variety of emotions when a pet dies and that it takes time to work through the pain of pet loss.
A Gift From Rex by Jim Kramer, DVM, Beaver’s Pond Press, Inc.; ISBN 1890676632 (2001) All ages
In this book, Rex, the German Shepherd, talks to parents and children heart to heart, about their sadness, grief, anger, guilt and recovery from loss. As parents, teachers, counselors, relatives and friends, we can help young children, to prepare for challenges we know they will have to face. Take a pro-active approach to loss. Everyone has the opportunity to do a profound amount of good. For more information or to order visit www.drjimkramer.com.
Tear Soup by Pat Schweibert and Chuck DeKlyen, Perinatal Loss, ISBN 0961519762 (2001) All ages
This book is a great book for anyone dealing with any kind of loss. The story focuses on one woman’s unspecified loss. It tells the tale of making “tear soup” as you grieve your loss. Each person’s soup will turn out differently and in different time. The illustrations are very detailed. Anyone from a young child to an older adult will appreciate this book.
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst, Simon and Schuster Children’s, ISBN 0689712030 (1975) Ages 4-8
Because the life cycle of animals is so short, it’s usually the first death a child experiences. Fortunately, there are good children’s books to help in many difficult situations. This book works better than any other book on the subject. It is the story of a small boy who is trying to understand and recover from his cat’s death. The author is honest and authentic in her approach. (Review by Susie Wilde of Children’s Literature)
Annie Loses Her Leg But Finds Her Way by Sandra J. Philipson, Chagrin River Publishing Company, ISBN 192982100X (1999) All ages
Based on an actual incident, this is both a poignant and funny story of a nine year old English Springer Spaniel who loses her front leg to cancer. Annie and her high-spirited brother Max experience her illness and recovery in very different ways. Max is in denial and Annie is in a state of sad acceptance. It isn’t until they meet Samantha, a three legged Golden Retriever, that they both begin to heal. This is a book about love, loss, friendship and optimism that is appropriate for children of all ages and the young in spirit.
Healing Your Grieving Heart for Kids by Alan Wolfelt, PhD, Companion Press, ISBN 1879651270 (2001)
Offered are suggestions for healing activities that can help survivors learn to express their grief and mourn naturally and age-appropriate activities that teach younger people that their thoughts are not only normal but necessary. Acknowledging that death is a painful, ongoing part of life, they explain how people need to slow down, turn inward, embrace their feelings of loss, and seek and accept support when a loved one dies. For more information or to order visit www.centerforloss.com.
Goodbye Mousie by Robie Harris, Simon and Schuster Children’s, ISBN 0689832176 (2001) Ages 5-8
“When I woke up this morning, I tickled Mousie’s tummy. But Mousie didn’t wake up.”
When a child learns that his pet mouse has died, at first he can’t believe it. “Mousie is NOT dead!” he insists. “He’s just…very…very sleepy this morning.” But it takes time for the young narrator to understand that Mousie IS dead and he’s not coming back. With the help of his family, the child finds out that it’s perfectly okay to feel angry and sad when his pet mouse – whom he loves – dies. By voicing his feelings and asking questions, he finally begins to accept Mousie’s death.
Tough Boris by Mem Fox, Harcourt, ISBN 0152018913 (1998) Ages 5-8
Boris von der Borch is a mean, greedy old pirate – tough as nails, through and through, like all pirates. Or is he? When a young boy sneaks onto Boris’ ship, he discovers that Boris and his mates aren’t quite what he expected. When Boris’ parrot dies, he mourns and cries like everyone else.
Remembering My Pet by Nechama Liss-Levinson, PhD and Rev. Molly Phinney Baskette, MDiv, ISBN 978-1-59473-221-8 (2007) Ages 7-13
The death of a pet is often a child’s first encounter with grief. How your child learns to cope through this experience may affect his or her attitude into adulthood. Drawing on concepts from psychology and a broad multifaith perspective, this supportive workbook provides a sensitive and practical resource that will help children ages 7 to 13 cope with the death of a beloved animal. Children can write, draw, read, create and express feelings via concrete, hands-on activities.
When a Pet Dies by Fred Rogers, Putnam, ISBN 0399215042 (1988) Ages 4-8
In this useful book from the First Experience series, the affable star of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhoodhelps children share feelings of the loss of a pet while offering reassurance that grieving is a natural, healing thing to do. A sensitive and sensible first book about death.
Pet Loss Websites: