Loss of a Pet: How it feels and what you can do to grieve

Pets, particularly cats and dogs, hold a special place in our hearts, but they don’t get to live as long as we usually do.

We build up relationships with our pets over the years so it can be particularly hard to lose them. We caught up with Caroline Harris, our in-house psychologist, on our relationship with our pets and what we can do to ease the grieving process.

Our relationship with our pets

Our pets are a significant part of our lives and impact our daily routine – you get up to let them out, feed them, cuddle them, and look forward to seeing them when you get home from work. These things, however small, help us to form a bond with our pets.  

Sam, our social media man, still expects to hear his parent’s pets running to the front door to see him when he visits. Sadly, they are no longer with us, but the memories still remain.

Caroline explains, “The relationship we have with our pets can often be similar, if not the same to the relationships we have with close friends and family. If there is a loss of a pet in the family, there is a human need to grieve in exactly the same way.”

What you can do

  • Like any loss, you need to recognise that it is significant to you or someone close to you. Be conscious of how you feel.
  • Be aware that any loss can trigger memories of other losses you have had in your life. This is normal.
  • Be aware that some people may not understand how you are feeling.
  • You need time to process the loss and grieve.
  • Grief is a normal reaction to loss – grieve as long as you need. However you process grief, it’s right, as long as you process it and get support if you need it.

Everyone is different – there is no rule book

Some people want to deal with the loss by having a burial, or cremating their pet and scattering their ashes somewhere meaningful to them, but others won’t. There are no rules when dealing with a loss.

Grief is a very private thing; some people don’t want help or condolences. Others want to celebrate the life of their pet.

Sometimes people will use a specific date or time to mark their loss by remembering their pets birthday, or the anniversary of when their pet passed away. Others won’t, and that’s fine too.

Back to Caroline, “I’ve had clients that just don’t want to remember the time their loved ones died, but they will remember their birthdays. Birthdays give them an opportunity to remember what they were like when they were alive, not the end of their life. It can often be the same with pets.”

Get help if you need it – don’t be embarrassed

If you are really struggling, and you have no one to help you through this loss, go to your GP. You aren’t the first person to see their GP because they have lost a pet and the may have options to help you.

If you were grieving a friend or a member of your family you might visit a GP – it’s no different with pets. The GP will have seen plenty of people who have lost someone they love and don’t know what to do. They are often lonely and don’t have anyone else.

Our Managing Loss and Major Life Changes self-help module can help you deal with your loss and offer practical advice on dealing with grief.

When it can become a problem

Grieving is a natural human response to loss, so it’s helpful to know that you are going to feel grief at some point. When people pretend they are fine and do not deal with their grief, it can become an issue.

Grief, like anxiety, is something that will affect all of us at some point in our lives. But if your grief remains persistent and begins to affect your ability to live a normal life, then you could develop complex grief and should seek professional help – although this is uncommon.

Normally people deal with grief for around two years before things begin to feel normal again – but this will vary from person to person and may be quicker with a pet.

I want to talk to someone about the loss of my pet, how do I do it?

Find some that you trust and test the waters, for example;

“I know your dog passed away a couple of years ago, can I talk to you about my dog? He just passed away…”

It’s unlikely that they won’t be supportive but if they are don’t lose heart, there will be other people to support you. Remember, some people won’t understand. Some people just don’t have the skills to empathise, whether that is the loss of a friend, family member or the loss of a pet. Some people even identify better with their pets than with people. For example, we know that some people with varying disabilities will relate better to animals than humans. Everyone is different.

Losing a pet and work

Once I had a manager who was very close to his dog. One day he got a call at work to say his dog had been killed in a road traffic accident. He took a couple of days off, but it was awful knowing he was suffering. I didn’t know how to support him; should I buy him a card, should I talk about it or does he want to grieve privately. I didn’t know, but nobody does.

Caroline says, “You’d be surprised at how many people just have no idea how to cope. They struggle with any kind of loss. The best thing you can do is reach out to the person that is suffering and offer your condolences. Let them know you are here if they need you.”

It is important to give yourself time to grieve so if you need time off work then you should ask to take it as bereavement or sick leave. Some people will prefer to stay at work to take their mind off the grief and that’s fine too. We know that taking time off work isn’t always possible; you might not get paid sick leave or your place of work doesn’t have the right culture to allow it.

Construction, for example, is a male-dominated sector where weakness is often stigmatised. Just remember, even if you get a little banter from your colleagues about your current situation there will be people who you work with who know they would feel exactly the same way. Working in such an environment does not stop people feeling emotional, but it is a lot harder to be open and honest about it.

Summary

We are a nation of pet lovers so when they leave us it can be hard, but you are not alone. The relationship we have with our pets is so strong we should process their loss like any other and allow ourselves time to grieve. There is no rule book, grieve in whatever way works for you, but you should acknowledge your need to grieve.

If you are still dealing with a loss you may find our Managing Loss and Major Life Changes self-help learning module useful. The module supports people who have had some time to process their loss, and who feel ready to move on. Managing Loss and Major Life Changes is 1 of 10 self-help learning modules from our app, My Possible Self.

 

Richard Dale