Most pet owners report that they see their animals as members of the family. They name them, celebrate their birthdays, pay expensive veterinary bills to help them, buy them gifts, and often feel that they get as much joy from them as they do from their human friends or family.
For senior citizens, pets can take on a great significance – many of them feel that their pet is their primary companion; they are their family. As seniors age, so do their pets, and so many older adults face the stress of watching their pet fall ill or pass away. Though their lives are shorter on average than our own, their impact on our lives is no less meaningful than the relationships we hold with other people. If you’re struggling with the loss of a pet, you are not alone and you are not wrong for experiencing the deepest feelings of grief in these circumstances.
Bearing in mind your capacity to love your pet, when a death occurs, it is without a doubt a traumatic experience. The grief reaction is actually healthy, though it can express itself in many difficult ways. You may experience some or all of these symptoms in varying degrees: lethargy, headaches, loss of appetite, disturbed sleep and insomnia, sadness, depression, regret, loneliness, anxiety, poor concentration, confusion, and guilt.
Your feelings may be especially intense if you had to go through the heartbreaking choice of euthanizing your very sick companion. Dr. Mark Lawrie, president of the Australian Veterinary Association, says: “Yet this difficult choice is often the right one, particularly if your pet is in agonizing pain or the quality of life has deteriorated. Vets deal with this on a daily basis and often have to counsel owners in coming to terms with the death of their pet. People react in all sorts of different ways.”
Bereavement counseling is becoming more popular because as a society, we’re now coming to terms with the fact that losing a companion animal can be as difficult as losing a family member. All too commonly, people feel they shouldn’t go through the same grieving process as for a human. But if you’re suffering, there is no shame in seeking help.
To help cope with the loss of a pet, consider the following recommendations from grief support specialists:
- Don’t be afraid to cry – Tears are a natural expression of your grief. Stifling them does a disservice to your emotional health.
- Write notes to your pet – When you’re feeling your worst, write the words you’d like to say to your pet down in a note. This will help you to process the complex emotions of grieving.
- Take care of yourself – Grief can cause us to lose sleep, eat poorly and miss our exercise routines. Taking care of yourself by maintaining your healthy habits leaves you better prepared to handle the grieving process.
- Be kind to yourself – Take a walk outside, read a favorite book, or enjoy a relaxing hobby like gardening or knitting. Being kind to yourself is something positive you can do in memory of your pet.
- Avoid unnecessary changes – Major changes in your life or daily routine will only add to your stress. If possible, save them for a time when you’ve had a chance to heal.
It’s important to make time and space for the grief. Don’t hesitate to express your feelings openly, whether with a counselor, a close friend or family member, or even a journal. Healthy support is the key — talk to people you trust and who will empathize with your situation. What you need is to be heard.
The early days will be hard going, but eventually you’ll move through the feelings and the intensity will diminish. And in time, you will remember your pet with happiness and affection rather than sadness and grief.