How to cope with losing a pet

Pets quickly become part of the family, so when they leave us, we feel their absence just as we would with a human loss. And since we are responsible for a pet’s wellbeing, there may be added guilt associated with losing the pet.

Giving yourself time to grieve a pet loss is incredibly important for your mental wellbeing. While some might dismiss the loss and try to belittle your pain, it’s important to ignore the negativity and allow yourself time to come to terms with your loss.

The young and elderly are particularly vulnerable to the loss of a pet as they may feel a stronger emotional attachment to the animal. If you’re struggling to come to terms with losing your pet, read on to learn more about how grief works and the steps you can take to overcome it.

Why does losing a pet hurt so much?

We share an intense bond with our animals. In 2020, pet owners in the UK spent close to £7.9 million on their pets. If this isn’t a sign of the deep devotion we feel for our pets, we don’t know what is.

Around a quarter of UK households own a dog, so if you’re grieving the loss of a pet, then know that you aren’t alone with your feelings. Pets bring structure to our days and can often be considered a replacement for childless couples. We dote on our pets and they become part of the family, so it’s no wonder that we experience considerable grief when pets pass away.

We all respond differently to grief, but there are a few factors that can make the grief more pronounced and difficult to manage. For example, the structure of your family, your age, the pet’s age, the circumstances of the death and your pet’s personality.

The role of the pet in your life will also have a big impact on the grieving process. For example, if your pet was an emotional support animal or a service animal, then you will not only be grieving the loss of your pet but you might also lose some of your independence.

If you live alone, losing a pet can also be particularly traumatic as we often enjoy the companionship of an animal. Even if they can’t speak to us, they communicate in so many ways, so losing a pet can leave you feeling very lonely and isolated.

Saying goodbye to a pet is an inevitable part of welcoming pets into our lives. Dogs typically live between 10-13 years, while cats can live 12-18 years. So while it certainly isn’t something you can avoid, there are steps you can take to make the passing easier. And over time, you might find you are capable of welcoming a new pet into your life.

The grieving process when losing a pet

Grieving is a highly personal experience and there is no blueprint for what you can expect. It’s a process that isn’t always linear, despite all popular advice stating that you will pass through the particular stages. The common stages of grief are:

  • Denial

  • Anger

  • Bargaining

  • Depression

  • Acceptance

Some find that they move through the process quickly, only to be plunged back to the start when they think things are getting back on track. Others may jump around between the stages, often thinking they have arrived at acceptance only to return to the start again.

What’s important to remember is that grief is something that will pass with time. It’s a process that you go through, and it might never fully leave you. Many pet owners report being triggered by a memory years after their pet has passed.

You might see a dog that looks similar to your beloved pet, or you might be triggered to tears upon finding your pet’s collar tucked away in a cupboard. These feelings will always be there, and you aren’t waiting for them to diminish to vanish. Instead, you are waiting to grow around your grief so that it becomes easier to manage. Here are a few things you should keep in mind:

  • There is no normal timescale for grief. Some people might seem to move on quickly, while others feel the weight of their grief for years to come. Be patient with yourself and allow your grief to unravel itself over time.

  • Shock, sadness and loneliness at the loss of a pet are completely normal. Don’t let anyone else tell you what you should or shouldn’t be feeling. No one else can understand the bond you had with your pet, so no one else can tell you how your grief should be progressing.

  • Ignoring the pain won’t make it any easier. Denying your pain and now allowing yourself the time and space to grieve won’t make it any easier. If you don’t feel you are surrounded by people who will support you in your grief, seek solace in like-minded individuals who may be going through something similar.

How to cope with the loss of a pet

While there might not be a template for what grief should look like, there are a few healthy coping mechanisms you can try to help get your life back on track. The same advice that you would give someone grieving the loss of a loved one or a friend is applicable to those who have lost a pet. Grief doesn’t distinguish between species. Here are some healthy steps you can take to manage your grief:

Ignore those who tell you to get over it

You will encounter people who dismiss or diminish your pain and tell you to “move on” or “just get over it”. Do yourself a favour and ignore these people. No one can tell you how to feel after the loss of a pet. Some people are able to get over it quickly, but you might feel a more intense form of grief and that’s ok.

Let yourself have your feelings

Don’t try to hold back your emotions for anyone. Remember that it’s okay to cry, be upset, be angry, to laugh, to enjoy moments of joy. Allow yourself to feel what you feel without adding the emotional weight of guilt to your plate.

Speak to others who have lost pets

Identifying with other people who have recently lost their pets might make you feel less alone. Reach out to others who are in the same boat and you might find that sharing your grief helps you to find a pathway out of it. Online message boards and Facebook groups for grieving pet owners are a great place to start.

Plan a memorial

It’s easier to grieve when you feel like you’ve said a proper goodbye. Planning a simple memorial service for your pet can help you to reach out to others and get together with friends and loved ones. If anyone in your close circle has an issue with attending a pet funeral, let them know they don’t have to attend.

A memorial doesn’t have to be an event, you could also create a lasting legacy for your pet. Planting a tree with a memorial plaque is a great place to start. You could also create a piece of memorial jewellery, including rings, pendants, bracelets, charms, cufflinks .

Maintain a sense of routine

If you have other pets, take solace in the routine that you have with them. Pets are also known to grieve their companions, so maintaining routine will also help them to cope. Maintaining a sense of routine with your pets will also help to lift your mood and keep your spirits up.

Take care of yourself

Always be kind to yourself during the grieving process. Make sure you are eating a healthy diet and getting plenty of exercise. You should also take care of your emotional health and be ready to say no to social engagements that you aren’t ready for.

How to cope with unsupportive people

One of the hardest parts of dealing with grief is often the unhelpful comments from other people. These can range from dismissive comments to outrage that you are grieving the loss of a pet. Some people will never understand that losing a pet is painful, and it isn’t your job to make them understand.

If you have someone in your life who is giving you a hard time about grieving the loss of a pet, here are some tips to help you cope.

  • Don’t fall into the trap of arguing with them about why the loss of a pet is painful. If they can’t empathise with you, then it’s not your job to make them understand.

  • Accept that the most supportive people might actually be outside of your usual friendship groups. You might form unlikely bonds with someone from your office, for example.

  • Seek companionship from those going through something similar rather than trying to convince your friends and family that your grief is real.

Tips for seniors grieving the loss of a pet

The elderly are particularly vulnerable when it comes to the loss of a pet, particularly if the pet was a service animal or their primary companion. The elderly often fear outliving their pets, so when their pet dies first, it’s a bittersweet event. Here are some tips for dealing with the loss of a pet for the elderly.

  • Maintain connections. A pet is often your connection to the outside world and it might be the perfect excuse to get outside for a walk and chat with people. After the loss of your pet, make sure you stay connected with people as much as possible. This could mean meeting a friend for coffee once a week or catching up with family.

  • Get plenty of exercise. Without an animal companion in your life, you might find that your exercise levels fall. Try taking up a new hobby to maintain your exercise levels to support your mental and physical health.

  • Find new meaning in your life. Caring for a pet can bring a sense of fullness to your life, so it’s natural to feel like you’re missing out on something when your pet passes away. Look for new ways to instil your life with meaning. This could include volunteering, taking up a new hobby, or even getting a new pet when the time is right.

Tips for helping a child grieve a pet loss

Children often take the loss of a pet harder than adults because they are learning about death for the first time. Supporting a child through the loss of a pet is essential so that they can learn to cope with their emotions.

It can be tempting to shield a child from a pet death, but this isn't always the best option. The age-old white lie of telling a child their pet went to live on a farm might be tempting, but it’s often better to allow children to cope with the death in their own way. By expressing your own grief in a healthy way, your child will see that it’s ok to be sad.

What’s important is that the child doesn’t feel responsible for the death. Guilt can tarnish the memories of a beloved pet and leave a child feeling stuck and unable to move on. Try giving the child a small keepsake of their pet such as a pebble, token, or piece of memorial jewellery containing the hair. This will give them some comfort as they navigate their grief.

It’s important not to rush into getting a new pet when children are involved. This could send the wrong message that we don’t have to grieve the loss of a pet, we can simply buy a replacement. Your child may also feel disloyal to their first pet if they find joy in spending time with the new pet.

Coping with putting a pet to sleep

Losing a pet from natural causes is traumatic enough, but when you have to make the decision to end its life, it can be even more traumatic. You might feel guilty for choosing to put your pet down rather than take the chance with surgery or other life-saving treatments. Likewise, you might feel guilty that you didn’t spot the signs of their illness sooner.

Your veterinarian will be there to help you make an informed decision about what is best for your pet. Putting a pet to sleep might be traumatic, but it will be painless and peaceful for your animal. It will put an end to their suffering and allow you to start the healing process.

Knowing when it’s the right time to put an animal to sleep is never easy, but it’s a decision that pet owners need to be ready to make when it is required of them. Your pet cannot tell you how much they are suffering in words, so it’s down to you to spot the signs.

If your pet has been in an accident, the decision might be more urgent and give you less time to plan. But if your pet is suffering an illness, then you will have time to make their last day more special. This could include a visit to their favourite place or enjoying their favourite treats.

Explaining euthanasia to a child

Telling a child that you made a decision to let their pet go is never easy, but it’s important to be honest so that they can process their emotions. Make sure your child knows that their pet was suffering and that you needed to make a decision to help end their suffering.

Children will take cues from the grown-ups to process their emotions, so let them know that it’s okay to be upset. Remember that if you express the idea that it’s the wrong decision, your child will likely mirror these thoughts and emotions.

It’s important to make sure your child doesn’t feel guilty about the decision, as they might feel they should have fought harder to convince you to keep their pet alive. Let them know it’s okay to be sad, but they don’t allow this sadness to be tainted with guilt as this can be very damaging.

Getting a new pet after grieving loss

There may come a time when you are ready to allow a new pet into your life. You should never buy or adopt another pet as a way to cope with the loss of your deceased pet. Instead, give yourself time to heal and manage your grief so that you know you are bringing a new pet into your home for the right reasons.

If you are missing animal companionship but aren’t ready for another pet, you could volunteer at an animal shelter. This will allow you to give back to your community while also enjoying the routine and physical activity that comes from owning a pet. There are also dog walking schemes available to help care for animals when their owners are unable to walk them. This would be an ideal choice for those who aren’t ready to bring another pet home right away.