Tips for Healing After Your Beloved Pet Dies
by Linda Donovan
It wasn’t until I got a dog that I truly understood why dogs have been referred to as our best friends. Your pet can give you unconditional love every day. (Well, sometimes you need to throw in a few treats, but who’s counting?) And when your dog, cat, or other favorite pet is with you, there’s a comfort in feeling that you’re never alone. Your dog might bring you his treasured stuffed animal, the cat could cuddle next to you, and your bird is likely to chirp a familiar tune. When you look into their eyes and they acknowledge your presence, it’s easy to see how these little family members are so loveable.
That’s why we grieve when our pets pass away, whether it happens suddenly, tragically, or is due to a serious illness or old age. And if you’re in the position where the pet is terminal and in constant pain, it can be emotionally draining after you had to make the decision to put the pet “to sleep.” So, what can you do to work through your sadness while trying to adjust to the new normal? Here are some strategies that can be helpful:
- Have a small ceremony in memory of your pet. I’m not talking about a fancy event. Just gather some family members or a friend around the dinner table and have them share their favorite stories about your beloved animal. Chances are, there will be anecdotes that will make you chuckle – like the time the dog got into the bowl of spaghetti and meat sauce before you could clean up the mess on the floor, but he managed to eat everything until the floor was spotless. The nickname for one of my dogs was “Hoover” because she was like a vacuum cleaner that devoured crumbs off the ground.
- Keep a journal and write your furry companion a letter. Journaling can help many people work through various types of losses. Express your feelings of love, regret, anger, or whatever emotions you’re experiencing. Don’t hold back. Get any thoughts of doubt out of your head and on paper so that you’re not consumed with them.
- Release any guilty feelings if you have them. When we lose a loved one, we’re often plagued with guilt, even though there’s nothing we could have done to change the course of the loss. That’s where it helps to forgive yourself. Sadly, accidents happen. It’s tragic when a pet is at the wrong place at the wrong time, runs away and disappears, or gets a serious illness that you couldn’t prevent. Instead of dwelling on the “what if” scenarios, try to remind yourself of the things you did to help make the pet’s life better.
- Create a special place to memorialize your pet. If you have a garden, or even inside your home, find a space to honor your pet. If you have children, consider asking them to paint a rock with your animal’s name on it and put that near a special plant. Or create a small shrine with the pet’s picture. Then you can visit that place when the mood strikes you and think of fond memories that bring a smile to your face.
- Practice self-care. Go easy on yourself and take enough time to heal. This could take months or longer. There’s no set timeline for grief. We’ve relied on our pets to help us through some of the toughest times, especially during the shutdown phases of the pandemic. Understand that it’s normal to grieve for your beloved pet so try not to take on more than you can handle until you’re ready. Self-care also involves getting exercise, doing something you enjoy each day, and setting modest achievable goals to help you stay motivated.
Some people I know who’ve lost their pets will get another pet after they’ve worked through their grief or offer to volunteer at their local animal shelter and foster an animal that’s waiting to find a home. Personally, I will always miss my beloved Roxy, a Jack Russell Terrier who lived to be almost 18 years old. Several years later, my son gave me a puppy, who is now nearly four years old. They both hold a special place in my heart along with several cats and bird that passed away many years ago.
Our pets are part of our family and it’s natural that we will miss them. But these suggestions might help you to understand and ease the pain of loss and present opportunities for healing.
To learn more about dealing with other losses, such as a friend, relative, or colleague, check out my latest book on Amazon, Beyond Loss in a Pandemic: Find Hope and Move Through Grief After Someone Close to You Dies.
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