Coping with grief and the loss of a pet
Losing a much-loved friend can feel like one of the hardest things to go through.
Coping with the pain of grief can often feel overwhelming, and you may experience many difficult and confusing emotions – from shock and disbelief to guilt and even anger. This in turn may affect your physical health, causing problems eating, sleeping or even carrying out everyday tasks. You may even feel nauseous or experience aches and pains.
These feelings may be very unwelcome, but they are normal and are a testimony to the special bond between people and their pets. It's important to give yourself as much time as you need to grieve. You've lost someone very special – missing them is natural. Unfortunately, not everyone understands this grief. It can sometimes feel like a very lonely experience.
All we can say is: we understand. Although it’s a hard time, we hope this advice will help you find ways to come to terms with the passing of your companion.
Coping with the loss of your pet
The death of a pet is very upsetting. Take time to talk things over with supportive friends and family members. Your emotions are not your enemy. Try not to feel ashamed or embarrassed of them. Tears are part of the healing process for a lot of people, although it’s perfectly normal to express your emotions in other ways too.
It’s important to remember that grief can fade with time and there are techniques which can help you come to terms with your loss. Everyone deals will grief differently and there is no right or wrong way. Gradually, it will get easier, even if it seems like you’re taking a long time to come to terms with the passing of your pet.
The different stages of grieving
For most people, the grieving process can bring up similar emotions. Understanding the different stages of grief can help you manage the healing process. Some people may never experience these feelings, or only relate to one of the stages. Others can experience all of them. You do not have to go through the stages in any particular order, or for any length of time. It is normal for people to spend time shifting between each stage and revisiting certain emotions:
- Denial. With denial comes shock and disbelief. It may be hard to accept that your pet is no longer with you – and your home may feel very empty.
- Anger. This is the time you especially need the support of family and friends and a listening ear. You may feel intense pain and outbursts of anger.
- Bargaining. This phase may bring up feelings of guilt and you might be asking yourself questions like ‘Did I do the right thing?’, ‘Could I have done something to prevent it?’ This can be very painful but it’s normal and will pass.
- Depression. For many people, depression is one of the necessary steps along the healing process. Some people feel immense sadness and will cry often. Their sleep can be disrupted and their appetite can change. They can withdraw from normal activities and may stop speaking to their friends or family. It is important to seek counselling or medical support if these feelings don’t pass or if they feel overwhelming.
- Acceptance. This is the final stage of grief and the understanding of your loss. You’ll still feel sadness but will be able to look back on your pet’s life, remembering the good times you shared.
If you feel like you’re struggling, speak to your vet or your GP. They might be able to put you in touch with a bereavement counsellor. Reading about other people’s experiences and different ways to cope can help, too. Take a look at our list of books, websites and helplines that offer advice.
Helping children understand grief
Losing a pet can be very hard for children. Often, it will be their first experience of death and it can be difficult for them to understand what’s happened to their friend.
It’s best to be honest. Try not to use phrases like ‘put to sleep’ – this can be confusing, especially for younger children. They might think their pet is resting and will come back soon. It’s also best not to tell them your pet has been ‘rehomed’ or ‘gone to live somewhere else’. Your child might think it’s their fault your pet is gone or hope that they come back again.
How you manage the situation will depend on your child’s age.
Younger children may not have much understanding of death but will miss their pet being around. They might ask you where the pet has gone and will be aware when you’re upset at the loss.
Older children will have more of an understanding. They might ask you questions like ‘will my other pets be lonely?’, ‘what’s happened to him now?’ These questions might be hard for you when you’re upset but it’s important to answer them as openly and honestly as you can.
Don’t rush to get a new pet. It might feel like that will help you and your children cope with their loss but it can also delay the healing process or even trigger other confusing emotions. It’s better to wait until the whole family is ready and excited to welcome another four-legged friend.
Ways to remember your pet
After your pet has passed away, you may want to hold a funeral or memorial for them. This could involve burying something like their collar, scattering their ashes, saying a prayer, or simply taking some time to remember them.
Once you’ve given yourself time to grieve, you might start feeling like you want to celebrate your pet’s life and focus on the happy memories of your time together. There are lots of ways you can remember your special friend. Photos and keepsakes can be really lovely and can make you feel like your pet is still close. Or you might like to plant something new in their favourite garden spot.
At PDSA we understand how important it is to remember the special place pets have in our lives. We can help you commemorate your pet’s life in a way that will leave a lasting legacy for other pets in the future.
Books, website and helplines
Here is some more information which you may find useful in coping with the loss of a pet:
Download our leaflet on Dealing with grief
- “Absent Friend: Coping with the loss of a treasured pet” by Laura and Martyn Lee, published by Henston Ltd. (ISBN 978-1850540892)
- “Companion Animal Death” by Mary F Stewart, published by Butterworth-Heinemann (ISBN 978-0750640763)
- “A Loving Farewell” by Davina Woodcock, published by DogSense Publications (ISBN 978-0954163600)
- “Goodbye, Dear Friend” by Virginia Ironside, published by JR Books Ltd. (ISBN 978-1906217938)
- Pet Bereavement Support Service (PBSS) Freephone - 0800 096 6606 Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
- PDSA National Collection of Pet Memories Freephone 0800 591248
- Cat's protection "Paws to listen" free and confidential grief support service Freephone - 0800 024 94 94
- “Missing my pet” by Alex Lambert, published by BGTF Ltd (ISBN 978-0955411816)