GRIEVING THE LOSS OF A
the normal response to any important loss in life. It occurs regardless of
whether death followed a prolonged illness, or a sudden accident. Grieving
people experience both physical and emotional traumas as they try to adapt
to the upheaval in their lives brought about by the loss.
long recognized that the grief suffered by pet owners after their pet dies
is the same as that experienced after the death of a person. The death of
a pet means the loss of a non- judgmental love source. There is no longer
anything for the pet owner to nurture and care for. Furthermore, the owner
looses his or her contact with "the natural world." These feelings can be
particularly intense for the elderly, single people and childless
couples,( for whom the pet also is a child substitute).
THE STAGES OF GRIEF
In truth, the process of grief is not a cut and dried process that can be
subdivided into strict categories. Rather, the grief process is a
continuum, with each person experiencing it in a different way. Dividing
the grief process in to "stages" helps the grief stricken person to under-
stand that their experiences and emotions are normal. Some people will
quickly progress through all the phases, while others appear to get
"stuck" in a particular phase. Briefly, the stages of grief are as
- SHOCK AND
DENIAL- The reality of death has not yet been accepted by the
bereaved. He or she feels stunned and bewildered-as if everything is
The grief stricken person often lashes out at family, friends,
themselves, God, the Veterinarian or the world in general. Bereaved
people will also experience feelings of guilt or fear during this stage.
In this stage, the bereaved asks for a deal or reward from either God,
the Veterinarian or the Clergy. Comments like "I'll go to Church every
day, if only my pet will come back to me" are common.
Depression occurs as a reaction to the changed way of life created by
the loss. The bereaved person feels intensely sad, hopeless, drained and
helpless. The pet is missed and thought about constantly.
Acceptance comes when the changes brought upon the person by the loss
are stabilized into a new lifestyle. The depth and intensity of the
mourning process depends on many factors. The age of the owner,
circumstances surrounding the death, relationship of the animal to the
owner and to other family members, are all significant. Recently
experiencing the death of a significant person in the owner's life can
also affect how the pet's death is handled. Usually, children recover
more quickly, while the elderly take the longest. Sometimes, the death
of a pet will finally enable the bereaved to mourn the loss of a person,
whose death had not yet been accepted.
PET LOSS AND CHILDREN
Many people do not realize how traumatic and confusing death can be on a
child. Although children tend to grieve for shorter periods of time, their
grief is no less intense than that experienced by adults. Children also
tend to come back to the subject repeatedly; so extreme patience is
required when dealing with the grieving child. Some helpful tips for
helping the grieving child include:
- Giving the child
permission to work through their grief.
- tell their teacher about the pet's death.
- encourage the child to talk freely about the pet.
- give the child plenty of hugs and reassurance.
- discuss death, dying and grief honestly.
- NEVER say things
like "God took your pet," or the pet was "put to sleep."
- The child will learn to fear that God will take them, their parents or
- The child will become afraid of going to sleep.
- Include the
child in everything that is going on.
- Explain the
permanency of death.
DO PETS GRIEVE?
What many people find hard to believe is that animals can form very firm
attachments with each other. Even pets that outwardly seem to barely get
along will exhibit intense stress reactions when separated. In fact,
grieving pets can show many symptoms identical to those experienced by the
bereaved pet owner. The surviving pet(s) may become restless, anxious and
depressed. There may also be much sighing, along with sleep and eating
disturbances. Often, grieving pets will search for their dead companions
and crave more attention from their owners.
How can an owner
help the grieving pet? By following the following recommendations:
- Keep the
surviving pet(s) routines as normal as possible.
- Try not to
unintentionally reinforce the behavior changes. If the pet's
appetite is picky, don't keep changing the food. All that does is create
a more finicky pet. Don't over do the attention given to the
pet(s) as it can lead to separation anxiety.
- Allow the
surviving animals to work out the new dominance hierarchy themselves.
There may be scuffles and fights as the animals work out the new pecking
order (dogs mostly).
- Don't get a new
pet to help the grieving pet(s) unless the owner is ready. It will
backfire unless the owner is emotionally ready for a new pet.
People still grieving won't have the energy for it.
Should the owner
let the surviving animals see and smell their dead companion?
There is no evidence that doing so will help the surviving pet(s), but
some people claim that it does.
Usually, all it accomplishes is to make the owner feel better. Therefore,
if the owner wants to have the surviving pets "say good-bye," then it
should be allowed.
Given time, healing will occur for the bereaved owner. However, there are
several things that the grief stricken owner can do to help speed up the
- Give yourself
permission to grieve. Only YOU know what your pet meant to you.
- Memorialize your
pet. Makes the loss real and helps with closure. Allows the
bereaved to express their feelings, pay tribute and reflect. Draws
in social support.
- Get lots of
rest, good nutrition and exercise.
yourself with people who understand your loss. Let others care for
you. Take advantage of support groups for bereaved pet owners.
- Learn all you
can about the grief process. Helps owners realize that what they
are experiencing is normal.
- Accept the
feelings that come with grief. Talk, write, sing, or draw.
- Indulge yourself
in small pleasures.
- Be patient with
yourself. DON'T let society dictate how long mourning should
- Give yourself
permission to backslide. It WILL end and your life WILL be normal
again. Grief is like waves in the ocean: at first the waves come
in fast and hard, but as time goes on, the waves become less intense and
further apart. Don't be surprised if holidays, smells, sounds, or
words trigger a relapse.
- Don't be afraid
to get help. Pet loss support groups, grief counselors...
- Be sure to
consult your own "Higher Power." Either religious or spiritual.
Grief is probably the most confusing, frustrating and emotional thing that
a person can ex- perience. It is even more so for pet owners. Society in
general does not give bereaved pet owners"permission" to grieve openly.
Consequently, pet owners often feel isolated and alone. Luckily, more and
more resources are becoming available to help the bereaved pet owner
realize that they are NOT alone and that what they are feeling is entirely
Margaret Muns DVM is the staff veterinarian on the Best Friends Animal
Sanctuary forum. (http://www.bestfriends.org).
Top of Page
- Lagoni, L.,
Butler, C. and Hetts, S: The Human-Animal Bond and Grief WB Saunders,
Philadelphia 1994. Chapters 2 and 10.
S: Consoling Bereaved Clients. Proceedings, 12th Annual Seminar for
Veterinary Technicians, Western States Veterinary Conference, 1983
- Malay, M:
Grieving the Loss of Your Beloved Pet . Pamphlet distributed by
Community Service Systems, Fairview, Pennsylvania
- Guntzelman, J.
and Riegger, M. : Supporting Clients Who are Grieving the Death of a
Pet. Veterinary Medicine Jan 1993
- Hetts,S et all:
Do Animals Grieve? Loss and the Companion Animal. Perspectives Nov/Dec.
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