“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” -- Anatole France
Last summer, I was invited to attend a small gathering to commemorate the death of a poodle. Karen and Bill buried Koby’s collar in their New Jersey backyard and shared humorous and heartfelt stories about the decade they shared with their beloved and temperamental rescue dog.
As someone who didn’t grow up with pets, I started to appreciate the palpable loss surrounding the death of a pet and the difficulty of coping with feelings of grief for an animal.
“I know it may seem silly,” Cara cried in my office as she described feeling heartbroken that her cat Lola was ill and had a poor prognosis. She quickly explained, “I know she’s just a cat…”
Friends and family didn’t seem to grasp Cara’s sadness, and as a result, she felt embarrassed for feeling so strongly.
Sean, another client, felt particularly distraught when he described putting his Goldendoodle down. He missed spending time with Rusty and also felt guilty about having to lay him to rest.
“I know he was suffering, but I still feel like I should have been able to keep him alive,” he said.
Over 164 million U.S. households enjoy the company of pets, according to The Humane Society of the United States. So many of us love our pets, yet feel uncertain about how to mourn the loss of our furry friends. When people around you don’t understand your loss, you may feel like you’re overreacting which will only add to your pain and interrupt cathartic grief.
Pets aren’t just animals--they can provide meaningful company and therapeutic benefits to people of all ages. For example, research shows that when older adults with dementia are paired with therapy dogs, they often experience significant reductions in depression.
In another study, children who suffered sexual abuse who participated in animal-assisted therapy benefited from reduced post-traumatic experiences, as compared to other group treatments. Given the notable comfort a pet can provide, it makes good sense for you to feel pain around losing a pet.
If you’ve lost a pet, here are some suggestions on how to cope with your loss:
1. Don’t discount your feelings. When we give love, we feel love. Of course you feel sad. Deep sadness doesn’t mean you’re too emotional--caring means you’re loving and human.
2. Don’t blame yourself. Guilt is an emotion that complicates existing grief. It’s not your fault. Use your loss to practice some self-compassion, reminding yourself you did the best you could and deserve to practice good self-care. We are often kinder to others than we are to ourselves. Now is a time to treat yourself the way you’d treat a cherished friend.
3. Surround yourself with people who honor how you feel. How supported we feel has a lot to do with who we rely on for comfort. Some friends may be more empathic than others. If you feel alone, many cities offer pet loss support groups.
4. Pursue meaningful rituals. Find a heartfelt way to channel your sadness. If your birthday is approaching and you love your local animal shelter, you could request donations from your loved ones in lieu of gifts. Think of other ways to commemorate your loss, such as gathering with friends to talk about your beloved pet or sharing photos and memories. Finding meaning in pain is one way to circumvent drowning in distress.
If you are wondering how to best offer support to a friend who has lost a pet, it can be helpful to listen and understand your friend's experience, rather than offer platitudes. True friendship is the willingness to sit patiently with someone experiencing sadness.
Jennifer Taitz is a licensed clinical psychologist based in New York City. She is the author of End Emotional Eating: Using Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills to Cope with Difficult Emotions and Develop Healthy Relationship to Food. Visit her website drjennytaitz.com or find her on Facebook and Twitter to learn more.