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How to Cope with the Death of a Pet

How to Cope with the Death of a Pet

A Guide on Grief & Healing

When a pet dies, a family experiences grief. That is a universal truth. Though it may seem strange because, well, everyone experiences grief differently. Sometimes grief doesn't seem like grief. So it's easy to assume that some families do not, in fact, experience grief a the loss of a beloved pet. (Or at least some members of some families.) Blogs of veterinarians and animal lovers abound these days with stories of surprising-but-common reactions that people have demonstrated over the loss of a pet. Some people have been known to maintain a stoic, expressionless presence as a family pet – a faithful friend of over 20 years – has been put to sleep right before his or her eyes. Others cry for days at the death of a pet, sometimes to the point of causing clinic staff to be alarmed at the intensity, or sheer number, of the emotional phone calls to an office.

There are, clearly, many ways to cope with the death of a pet. And, while this article's title indicates it will be an instruction manual for how to behave in such a situation, it is anything but that. Fact is, there can be no instruction manual for such a thing. Or, if there were one, it would simply consist of one sentence: never be afraid to simply behave as God would have you; there is no “proper” way to grieve.

Instead of a traditional list of tips for what to do when a pet you love dies, we offer the following summary of what experts say are the typical emotional phases a person goes through in the process of grieving. These phases apply to any sort of grief, of course, whether it be over the loss of a job, a marriage, a pet, or even a beloved family member. So we have tailored this list to specifically address things you might see in the behavior of a person (whether it be you or someone else) of someone who has lost a pet.

Denial

A pet's role in our lives is a lot larger than we realize, until they pass away.Denial is the first stage of grief. It is perhaps the stage that is in effect during the aforementioned times in which a pet parent shows up at a veterinarian's office for an appointment to have his beloved companion put to sleep due to a terminal illness, and he has a stoic, expressionless look on his face for the whole visit. Either that or, perhaps, he is joking, smiling, laughing, pretending as if all is well in his world and he and his buddy might even head out to the park for an afternoon of frisbie chasing right after the appointment. The are examples, clearly, of denial.

Experts are quick to point out that the list of stages of grief is not necessarily a consecutive one. There are plenty of instances in which the first reaction over the loss of a pet is anything but denial. But it's important to understand these phases entirely so that one can recognize unexpected, even bizarre, episodes of denial of a death of a companion animal for what it most likely is – not a mental illness or a sign of psychological weakness! – grief.

Anger

Plenty of veterinarians report – some with a bit of frustration – that they can sometimes unfairly bear the brunt of this stage of grief, anger. The first reaction to a death of a pet who has been under a particular veterinarian's care is often one of harsh words toward the vet himself. 'Why didn't you do something different?!' a desperate pet owner might wail, or 'why didn't you tell me this might happen?', or even 'I trusted you to care for my beloved!'

Often the unfortunate result of this stage of grief is lawsuits, and, unfortunately, some veterinarians will testify that a big part of their services fees is used to cover the costs of insurance protection for cases like this. So, while this stage of grief may lead to unpleasant confrontations for which forgiveness will be difficult, it is important that forgiveness be extended anyway.

Anger over the death of a pet is simply grief. And that is a fact that we all must, simply, learn to live with.

Bargaining

Parents report that this stage of grief is especially apparent in children even before a fur-ever friend has died. As a beloved family friend gets sick and the inevitable become obvious to all, a child will often attempt to strike a bargain with God. “If I do the dishes tonight without complaint,” he may say, “will you make sure Rusty is okay?”

Of course, even a child has to know, intellectually, that this sort of pact is as impractical as it is unenforceable. Death is just a fact of life, and our attempts to bargain away the emotional pain it brings to our lives is just a human reaction – one of the difficult stages of grief. Well, actually, to say it is difficult may be a misnomer. In fact, the stages of grief are our psyche's attempts to bring comfort to ease – or at least postpone – our emotional pain. So, grief stages are sort of akin to taking an asprin for a painful muscle ache or putting a band aid over a large cut. They are tools for healing. So perhaps our description above should have read, “the comforting stages of grief.”

Depression

Having said all that we said at the end of the last section, it seems strange to think of the depression stage of grief as being any sort of comfort. But, alas, depression can be a comfort. Spending a lonely night simply crying to ones self about the loss of a beloved animal in your life can be ironically comforting – a guilty pleasure even, some pet owners have confessed in their blogs.

While a constant state of depressive moods is cause for concern for anyone – and should be reason enough to visit a doctor or a mental health professional – a few hours of comforting sadness over the loss of a faithful animal friend is a natural, and healthy, thing to experience. Many families are able to experience this stage as a group, by simply setting up memorials that can be returned to in reverence and silence on special occasions (or, well, any time a sad feeling begins to churn).

But, as we say, even experienced alone, this stage will always, in the end, prove to be a comfort – even if it may not seem so in the moment.

Acceptance

Alas, we come to the stage of grief that is always listed last, but may not be experienced in that order. In fact, as with all of the other stages, acceptance of the loss of a beloved pet may be fleeting – coming and going temporarily until it finally sinks in as the final stage. (We say above that these stages are not consecutive but, in fact, acceptance will always be the final stage. All who suffer grief over the loss of a pet can rest assured that their permanent peace over that sad reality will come eventually. The trouble is that only God can say when, exactly.)

Accepting the loss of a pet is one of the most important steps towards healing.Many who love a person who is in the midst of grief over the loss of a pet will look forward to this stage and do all they can to encourage it. This is where the well-intended advice, “Just move on with your life,” often comes into play. It is important to realize that this is not necessarily helpful advice. The “just moving on” part of grief over the loss of a special cat or dog cannot be rushed. A pet owner simply has to come to terms with the death in his own time and on his own terms.

Given this, it can be difficult and uncomfortable knowing what to say to a pet owner in the midst of grief who is struggling to get to this final stage of acceptance – who wants nothing more than to be freed from the emotional pain of the grief.

There are several very helpful thoughts from the world of Christianity that may help in these circumstances. The first is, “With God, all things are possible.” The second is “Your problems – and depressing thoughts – of today, will be your testimony for God tomorrow.” The third is “Be still and know that I am God.”

Sharing these thoughts – or simply remembering them if you are going through grief yourself – may be the best way a person can help a grief-stricken friend.

The bottom line to how to cope with the loss of a pet is to remember that this is no right or wrong way to do this. One simply has to live through the grief and realize that it will always run its course – perhaps in a little longer time than one might desire, however. And the other tidbit that might help is to simply remember that grief is simply another form of love! And love never fails.

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