Boy hugging his dog

The Healing Journey: Understanding and Processing Pet Loss

Reading Time: 6 MIN

Introduction

I’m Colleen Ellis, the founder of Two Hearts Pet Loss Center. Today, I want to discuss a difficult topic: coping with the loss of a beloved pet. While it’s a painful subject, it’s one we’ll all face. I aim to provide you with insights and emphasize the importance of giving yourself permission to grieve, mourn, and honor your pet’s life and love. We often wonder why the pain is so intense when our pets pass away compared to human losses. I’ll share a few thoughts to help you understand this.

A Portrait of teenage girl petting golden retriever outside in sunset

Pure Love

The love we share with our animals is simple, pure, and unconditional, making their loss profoundly painful. We share unconditional love with our animals. They love us regardless, which makes their loss and our tough decisions for them in sickness or old age profoundly heart-wrenching. Unlike human relationships, there are no expectations with our animal companions. They exist to love us, and we love them in return. It’s a pure and simple connection that leads to pure grief.

The love we feel for our pets matches the grief we experience when they’re gone. Many only grasp this depth of emotion when it’s too late. Our pets have become integral family members; 83% of pet owners view them as such. This bond, termed anthropomorphism, arises from our humanization of them, from giving them names and voices to considering them as our children. As our care for them escalates, so does our grief when we must say goodbye. Finding supportive people who understand this unique connection is crucial during the grieving process.

90% of pet owners consider pet loss one of their most profound losses. Sadly, 72% felt unsupported or had their grief belittled because it’s not seen as significant as human loss. Today, I want to empower you to acknowledge your grief’s importance, just like any other loss. Finding supportive friends who cherished your pet’s role in your life is vital. Grief isn’t a neat process; it’s messy. Whether it’s your first or tenth time experiencing the loss of a cherished pet, embrace it. Grief may surprise you, appearing when you least expect it. Embrace those moments; they’re natural grief bursts. Don’t judge yourself based on where you think you should be in your grief journey. Embrace your grief, and let it flow when it comes. Now, let’s explore the core foundation: the definition of grief.

Young woman bonding with her cat in apartment

Definition of Grief

Grief is the internal pain we feel when we lose a beloved pet. Mourning is the outward expression of grief, and it’s essential for healing. Give yourself permission to mourn in your unique way, whether it’s through tears, journaling, walks, or revisiting familiar routines. Mourning is not about suppressing emotions or keeping busy; it’s a healthy expression of grief.

Empathy involves acknowledging someone’s pain, sitting with them in their sorrow, and actively listening to their stories. Sympathy is a more passive form of empathy, offering condolences without fully understanding the depth of the other person’s experience. When supporting someone in grief, don’t claim to understand their specific journey, but be there to listen, share, and actively mourn with them.

Lastly, remember the quote: “I hold my precious little pup Miko, who is the reason for what I do. I will always talk about you.” This quote reflects the profound impact our pets have on our lives and the importance of keeping their memory alive.

rear view of a young man hug his small Mixed-breed dog, dog looking at camera

Be Kind to Yourself

Give yourself permission to grieve and express your feelings when your beloved pet is lost. Encourage others to share their stories and listen empathetically without interjecting your own experiences. Practice “being” rather than constantly “doing.”

Be kind to yourself, treating your emotions as you would a friend’s, without apology. Embrace tears and emotions without feeling the need to say sorry. Remember that there’s no set timeframe for the grieving process; it’s a journey filled with ups and downs. Allow yourself to honor your story, the shared journey, and the love you had. Embrace the unpredictable moments when grief resurfaces, especially during the “year of firsts” without your pet.

Remember that wherever you are in your grief journey is exactly where you should be. Honor the stories and the shared journey with your beloved pet. It’s essential to validate your feelings; you’re not crazy for loving and grieving your pet. Recognize that grief for a pet is often misunderstood as disenfranchised grief.

When supporting someone in their grief, don’t try to fix their emotions. Be comfortable with tears, anger, and silence. Solitude can be healing. Give yourself permission to feel and mourn, and allow for rituals and mourning work. Be mindful and intentional in your grief journey, scheduling time for it.

Consider grief like shaking a soda bottle. If you release pressure slowly through mourning work, there won’t be an explosion of emotions when reminders of your loss surface. The intensity of grief reflects the depth of love you had for your pet.

Woman playing with her dog at home.

Grief Journey

Consider these factors as you navigate your grief journey:
1. Circumstances of the death: Reflect on how your pet passed away, whether you had to make a difficult decision or if it was an accident.
2. The relationship with your pet: Acknowledge that some pets hold a special place in your heart, and their loss may feel different.
3. Your unique personality and experiences with death: Embrace your feelings and express them in a way that feels right to you, regardless of past expectations.
4. Your support system: Reach out to support groups or individuals who can help you process your grief.
5. Other life events during your pet’s time with you: Recognize the significant impact your pet had during various life experiences.
6. Societal rules and expectations: Don’t let others diminish your feelings or impose unrealistic timelines on your mourning process.
7. Replacement theory: Understand that getting another pet won’t replace the one you’ve lost; emotions need to be acknowledged.

Listen to your heart and don’t let your head override your emotions. Grief isn’t something you “get over”; you reconcile it into your life story.

6 Central Needs of Mourning

Remember the importance of intentional mourning work. The six central needs of mourning are crucial in this journey.

1. Acknowledge the reality of the pet’s death: Be gentle with yourself as you come to terms with this new reality.
2. Embrace the pain of the loss: Allow yourself to feel the grief, shifting between denial and acceptance.
3. Remember your pet: Share and cherish memories.
4. Develop a new self-identity: Recognize the changes in your life and adjust to your “new normal.”
5. Search for meaning: Reflect on the significance of your pet’s life and the lessons learned.
6. Receive ongoing support: Seek help and companionship during your grief journey.

Remember that grieving is a process, and it’s essential to honor your feelings and take small steps toward healing.

Adorable domestic cut is cuddling and kissing with her pet owner at home. Authentic scene, genuine emotions.

Adjusting to a “New Normal”

Sometimes we feel the need to keep pushing through the grief, but it’s okay to take breaks and acknowledge that this is happening. Moving toward the pain of loss is crucial, even if it means looking at one picture or allowing yourself to feel the void when your pet is no longer there. Continue your relationship with your pet through memories. It might be challenging at first, but allow yourself to remember the happy moments when you’re ready.

Adjusting your self-identity can be tough, especially when your pet was a significant part of your life. Find ways to honor their memory and adjust to your “new normal.” Maintain your daily routines as best you can, but make slow revisions to them as needed. Keep mementos, as you may regret giving them away later. Search for meaning in your pet’s life and passing, finding answers that resonate with you personally.

A happy young adult woman enjoys time at a park with her standard poodle, running, playing, and relaxing with the dog.

Conclusion

Seek support from those who understand your relationship with your pet and respect your grief journey. It’s okay to distance yourself from people who may not offer healthy support during this time. Remember to be kind to yourself and honor your emotions. Your grief journey is unique, and you deserve to navigate it in your own way.

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