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When It’s Time to Say Good-bye: Pet Loss Support

The NC State University College of Veterinary Medicine has prepared the following information about pet loss support services.  

The bond formed between humans and animals is unique. For many people, animals are the primary sources of emotional and social support and can be described as children, best friends, confidantes, partners and companions. They become members of our family and can provide a sense of constant support through various changes in our lives. Pets enhance and stabilize our lives with constant unconditional love and devotion. This special human-animal relationship is what makes the death of a pet one of the most significant losses we experience in our lives. The impact of our loss is often determined by our personal experiences with loss, how close we are with our pet and the strength of our attachment with our pet.

Understanding Grief. It can be very difficult to cope with the loss of your animal. The loss of an animal can have an impact on you that is similar to the loss of a family member or friend. When your pet dies, you will grieve; this is a natural and normal response to your loss. Although the grief response is unique to each individual, understanding the grief process may help you cope with your grief or help other family members or friends who share your sense of loss. There are several stages of grief, but not everyone experiences them all or in the same order. Individuals may go back and forth between stages or may feel several emotions associated with different stages at the same time.

First Stage: Denial & Isolation. Your first response may be denial that your pet has died. Denial can be a healthy way to deal with uncomfortable or painful situations and can function as a buffer after unexpected shocking events. This does not mean denial of the actual loss; it’s just that the loss is too much for you to handle at that point in time. Denial can help pace our feelings of grief and often comes in the form of questioning; Is it true? Are they really gone?

Second Stage: Anger.  Anger is a common emotion associated with loss. Anger may be directed toward people you normally love and respect, including your family and your veterinarian. Anger may present itself in many ways such as anger at the pet for getting sick or anger at the veterinarian for not saving the pet. You may even be angry at yourself for not being able to save your pet. These feelings do not have to be logical or valid and many other emotions are usually beneath feelings of anger, including feelings of pain.

Third Stage: Bargaining.  You may feel that you can enter into some sort of an agreement to try and postpone the inevitable from happening. You may try to make a deal with a higher power in hopes that it will save or bring back your pet. Bargaining can be an escape from the pain and a distraction from reality of life without your pet. This includes many “what if” and “if only” statements and is used to keep suffering at a distance.

Fourth Stage: Depression. This is when grief enters a deeper level. It is important to understand depression felt during this stage is a normal and appropriate response to loss and not something to be fixed or “snap out of.” Common signs you may experience include withdrawal from life or feeling left in a fog of intense sadness. It may be difficult to engage in daily activities. Feelings of fatigue as well as frequent crying spells are also common signs of depression. Depression can be helpful as it slows you down and allows you to take real stock of the loss. It helps you rebuild and moves you towards growth.

Fifth Stage: Acceptance. Eventually, you will come to terms with your feelings and begin to accept your pet’s death. This does not mean that you are all right or okay with what has happened. Most people never feel okay about the loss of a loved one. This stage is about accepting the reality of the loss, that your pet is really gone. You will never like this reality, but you learn to live with it. This is where your final healing and adjustment can take place.

Pet Loss/Grief & Children. It is important to talk honestly with a child in age-appropriate ways about the death of a pet. This is probably their first experience with death and loss. Remember that children understand meanings on a very literal level. They might not understand explanations such as “He is sleeping” or “She went on a long trip.” This may cause them to fear going to sleep or going to bed or to wonder why the pet did not say good-bye.

Do not be afraid to show your emotions about the loss of your pet to your child. This helps show the child that grief is normal and healthy. Children grieve in small amounts. They may go back and forth from being upset to playing in a short period of time. They may temporarily regress to previously outgrown behaviors such as bed-wetting, thumb-sucking and being clingy.

Be sensitive to your child’s needs and emotions. Your support and understanding can make a big difference in helping him/her deal with grief in a healthy way. Offer your child reassurance through hugs, talking about your pet, and recalling memories of your pet. Children can participate in rituals and memorials for the pet. Prepare them as to what they should expect beforehand. Maintaining their routines, showing affection and allowing them to ask questions will help them cope with their loss.

Pet Loss Support Websites

Books on Pet Loss/Grief for Adults

  • Coping with Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet by Moira Anderson Allen, 3rd edition, Peregrine Press, 2007
  • Goodbye Friend:  Healing Wisdom for Anyone Who Has Ever Lost a Pet by Gary Kowalski, Stillpoint Publishing, 1997
  • The Loss of a Pet by Wallace Sife, Wiley Publishing, 2005
  • Grieving the Death of a Pet by Betty Carmack, Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2003
  • Goodbye My Friend by Herb and Mary Montgomery, Montgomery Press, 2001

Books on Pet Loss/Grief for Children

  • Dog Heaven by Cynthia Ryland, Scholastic Trade, 1995
  • Cat Heaven by Cynthia Ryland, Scholastic Trade, 1995
  • The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst, Simon and Schuster, 1975
  • A Special Place for Charlee: A Child’s Companion Through Pet Loss by Debbie Morehead, Partners in Publishing LLC, 1996
  • When Friendship Lives Beyond the Stars by Dr. Amy Sugar, Pawsitive Resources, 2004