Downeast Dog News

Grieving Our Beloved Pets

By Patricia Lee Rode, MA | Sep 01, 2021

As a pet loss and bereavement counselor, I have worked with clients who have lost many different kinds of beloved animal companions and have seen firsthand that grief is as individual as our fingerprints. Our pets offer us a constant in life and see us through changing times and difficult life events. They are our confidants who love us unconditionally, just as we are. We care for them and watch over them their whole lives; we are their stewards. They bring us laughter and joy. When we have to say goodbye, we can feel as though we don’t know who we are without them, that we have lost our best friend, our child, or our purpose. It can be devastating.

Sometimes others tell us how we should feel and don’t understand the magnitude of our feelings. We call this disenfranchised grief: grief that is not recognized by others. It’s important to honor the loss of your companion animal on your own timetable, giving yourself the space to truly feel your feelings and experience your grief. Finding community that is important to you and rituals that help you connect with your beloved pet can help you to remember they are not forgotten. Our goal might be to remember our pets with more love than pain eventually. Be gentle and kind to yourself, take baby steps towards healing, and treat yourself like you would treat your best friend. We don’t get "over" losing an animal that we love; we somehow get through it.

The five stages of grief are: shock, anger, guilt, sadness/acceptance and resolution (coming to peace with what has happened). People do not go through these stages in a linear way, but often experience many of these feelings simultaneously. Perhaps the emotion I most often hear from people is that they feel guilty. This is natural because the more you care, the more you wish you could have done for your beloved pet. They call this the "woulda, coulda, shoulda" phase whereby we go over and over what we might have done to keep them with us. All of a sudden, no matter what we do, we can’t save them. It’s so hard to let them go. The decision to help an animal ‘cross over’ as I say, to choose euthanasia, is probably one of the most difficult decisions of many people’s lives. Yet for your pet that no longer has control of its physical and mental assets that allows it to live free of pain, it is the final act of love. Euthanasia is a Greek word that means ‘good death.’ When it is to end suffering if your pet cannot recover health, it is the best, and hardest, decision.

Choosing something to link you to your precious pet can help comfort you: a memorial in your home, lighting a candle in the evening, a plant in memory of it, jewelry with its name engraved on it, or tattoos. A teenager I counseled carries his dog’s collar on his backpack. For children, the loss of their family pet can be the first loss they experience. It’s important for adults to support their feelings and model ways we grieve.

All loss brings about a transformation. If we can feel our feelings to heal, we can get through the loss of our treasured pet as better people, perhaps their parting gift to us. The loss of our pet can leave us with more knowledge about what’s important to us in life. Love and grief are inextricably intertwined – yet even though our beloved pets are no longer on this planet, we are still in relationship with them because…love is eternal. Those we love and lose become the fabric of our lives and become a part of us. It isn’t easy, but over time, we can learn to come to peace with our loss and love again.

Patricia Lee Rode, MA

(Patricia is a pet loss and bereavement counselor living in Rockland, ME. She sees clients in person, via telephone or Zoom.)