Karen’s 12 year-old dog “Badger” died yesterday and prompted this post. It is of course natural to experience grief when a family member dies, but what if that family member is a beloved pet?
For many the grieving process over a deceased companion animal is the same as with a human companion. We love our pets and consider them members of the family. We care for them, talk to them and celebrate their birthdays. Even those who have talked about the burden of caring for their pet often find the loss traumatic. If nothing else, the death creates a change in everyday life.
However, friends and family may not understand or comfort someone who has lost “just” a pet. And this may make grieving more complicated. Below are some tips from the experts on dealing with the death of a pet.
How to Help Friends and Family
Acknowledge the loss and express your sympathy. Drop a note, make a call, stop by–let them know you are thinking of them.
A good listener can put people at ease during times of grief. You may want to ask:
“Tell me a good story about…”
“When did you last see…?”
Cliche’s like “you’ll feel better soon” or “you can always get another cat” are not helpful.
Stay in Touch. It is very important to stay in touch after the death of a pet as milestones like birthdays and holidays are often difficult for those experiencing a loss.
Helping Children Express Grief
The loss of a pet may be a child’s first experience with death–he or she may feel guilt, sadness or fear. He or she may be angry with him/herself, family members, or the veterinarian for not being able to save the pet.
Children need to know that it is healthy to talk about death. Encourage open dialogue and the freedom to express opinions and feelings. Don’t be afraid to answer questions with “I don’t know the answer, but I’ll get back to you on that.” Consistent attention from caregivers and time are also important to help children come to terms with their loss. It’s a good idea to find out what your child already knows and validate any feelings he or she may express. Then tell the story simply and honestly.
Explain how you might feel when your pet dies—sad, mad, confused—and that it is OK to cry or want to talk or need time alone. Children learn by example, so don’t hide your own feelings. Showing your own grief gives children permission to show theirs, while holding grief back may inadvertently teach children to suppress their own sad feelings. You may also want to explain that while remembering your pet’s life, it is normal to also laugh at funny stories.
Many report that setting aside some special time to acknowledge the loss, pay tribute and share memories is helpful. Whether you have a funeral or a ritual of your own making, encourage children to participate. They may find drawing pictures, writing stories or putting together a collage or scrapbook a positive way to express their emotions.
There are also books like When a Pet Dies, by Fred Rogers or I’ll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm that may help.
Helping Seniors Experience a Loss
Seniors may find coping with the loss of a pet especially hard. If they live alone, they may feel a loss of purpose more than others. Or the pet’s death may be a reminder of other loved ones’ deaths. Getting another pet is also a more complicated decision for seniors as this loss may trigger thoughts of their own mortality and whether or not they will be able to care for a new pet. Experts report that they often see great benefits when friends and family simply spend time with a grieving senior and help him or her find a bereavement group if necessary.
Helping Yourself Cope with the Death of a Pet
The first step to feeling better is realizing that it is natural that you feel anger, guilt or sadness and grieve the loss. Some find friends, books, local or online bereavement groups and/or support hotlines to be helpful. Your veterinarian, local animal shelter and the web may help you find local pet loss support groups and coping information. As with children dealing with the loss of a pet, adults often find it helpful to set aside some special time to acknowledge the loss, pay tribute and share memories.