How to deal with the grief of losing a pet

When your favourite animal friend passes away, it can be devastating. Here’s how to cope with the loss.

Is it any wonder that the death of a beloved pet can leave us reeling – perhaps even in the same way we’d grieve the loss of a human friend or family member?

“It’s a massive impact – something you’ve loved and cared for, maybe for 10, 15 years, is suddenly gone out of your life and there’s a big hole,” says vet Dr Michael O’Donoghue, of pet loss and grief support network Pets and People.

Sometimes, he says, the grief can be intensified if the death was sudden and unexpected – for example if your dog is hit by a car.

Often, owners also have to decide when their pet’s life will end, which can complicate the grieving process.

Michael says people often feel a heavy sense of responsibility – even guilt – that is hard to shake.

If you have lost a beloved dog, cat or other animal, try these coping strategies:

Honour your pet

It’s important to find time to be by yourself and just let the tears flow, says Michael.

You might also decide to memoralise your pet by, say, putting their ashes in an urn, making a photo album or journalling.

Write down your thoughts

Pet loss counsellor Karen Jaques says journalling allows you to get all your thoughts and feelings on to the page, perhaps including writing a letter to your pet.

“The other thing I tend to get people to do is on bad days, to actually go back and review what they’ve written,” says Karen.

“Because sometimes they think they aren’t moving ahead in their grief and in actual fact they are.”

Find someone who gets it

One of the biggest impediments to healing is trying to share your grief with those who don’t understand, says Karen.

People that aren’t animal lovers that might be in your circle of friends, they’re not going to be your support group,” she says.

“They might have been great when you broke up with your boyfriend, but now that you’ve lost something that’s actually even more important, they’re not going to be great at that.”

Seeing a pet loss counsellor or joining an online support group such as the Pet Loss Grief and Terminal Illness Support Group on Facebook may also help.

How to help a friend who has lost a pet

What if you don’t know what to say to a friend or family member who has lost a pet?

Sometimes it’s better actually to not say much at all, just to check in on their feelings, rather than coming out with comments like ‘it was only a bird’,” says Karen.

So ditch the advice and just be there to support and listen.

Will a new pet help ease your grief?

Karen says a new pet can help fill a gap, however she strongly advises against trying to replace your pet with another that looks similar.

“If you do that, you’re setting yourself up for disaster. People get them home and that pet has different mannerisms, has a different personality and doesn’t meet expectations,” she says.

So if you’re looking for a quick grief fix, Karen suggests holding off until you’re really ready.

“But if your heart is absolutely aching to have that little cuddly thing snuggled up to you, then that’s fine.”

Written by Larissa Ham.