Losing a Pet: How to Deal and Heal in a Healthy Way

For many of us, our pets are our best friends, companions, and family members. Our pets are often a source of social support and unconditional love, while expecting very little in return. Many people form very strong relationships with their pets, and losing these pets may lead to feelings of grief similar to those experienced after any other significant loss.

When grieving the loss of a beloved pet, you may feel a wide range and depth of emotions, such as anger, pain, guilt, despair, regret, relief, loneliness and shame. Although these emotions are a normal and healthy part of the grieving process, they can affect many areas of our lives: physical, intellectual, emotional, social, and spiritual.

What does grief look like, and how long will it last?

Although there is no “normal” timetable for grieving, the pain of losing your pet usually eases with time. Some people feel better in a matter of weeks or months, while for others, the grieving process can last years. It is not unusual, over time, for certain memories of your pet to become blurred, or for grief to come in “waves,” changing from day to day. This does not mean that you are forgetting about your pet, or that you love them any less. They will always remain in your heart as a special part of your family.

While each person may experience grief differently, some common reactions are:

  • Physical: crying, shock, numbness, dry mouth, lump in throat, shortness of breath, stomachache, nausea, tightness in chest, restlessness, fatigue, exhaustion, difficulty sleeping, change in appetite, body aches, stiff muscles/joints, dizziness, fainting
  • Emotional: sadness, anger, guilt, anxiety, relief, loneliness, irritability, desire to blame others for loss, resentment, embarrassment, self-doubt, lowered self-esteem, feelings of being overwhelmed or out of control, feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, feelings of victimization, affect that may seem out of sync for the situation (e.g., smiling/laughing when nervous)
  • Intellectual: denial, sense of unreality, confusion, inability to concentrate, preoccupation with loss, hallucinations related to loss (visual, auditory, olfactory), need to reminisce about the pet and talk about the circumstances of the loss, sense of time passing very slowly, rationalizing or intellectualizing feelings about the loss, thoughts or fantasies about suicide (not accompanied by concrete plans or behaviors)
  • Social: feelings of withdrawal, isolation, greater dependency on others, rejection of others, reluctance to ask others for help, change in friends or living arrangements, desire to re-locate or move, need to find distractions from feelings of grief (stay busy or over-commit to activities)
  • Spiritual: bargaining with God in attempt to prevent loss, feeling angry at God when loss occurs, renewed or shaken religious beliefs, feelings of being blessed or punished, searching for meaning in the loss, questioning whether souls exist and what happens to loved ones after death, need for closure or purposeful ending (e.g., funeral, memorial service, good-bye ritual).

Next week, we will offer supportive strategies for self-care and coping during the grieving process.

To learn more about the professional support and pet grief counseling we offer at Georgetown Psychology Associates, click here.