Grieving Resources

When a beloved pet dies, you may struggle or feel overwhelmed with grief. The deeper the attachment the deeper your grief may be. As there are an infinite number of ways to love, there are many ways to grieve; no one can say which is right for you. Dr. Maggie has provided these resources in the hope that they might ease this process.

Everyone Grieves Differently

Pet’s roles in American life are increasing in significance. Our pets are filling important and significant roles in our lives as beloved family members, and it is natural that the loss of these pets is going to cause a huge sense of loss and heartache.  Given the intense bond most of us share with our animals, it’s natural to feel devastated by feelings of grief and sadness when a pet dies. While some people may not understand the depth of feeling you had for your pet, you should never feel guilty or ashamed about grieving for an animal friend.

Grief can be complicated by the role the animal played in your life. For example, if your pet was a working dog or a helper animal such as a guide dog, then you’ll not only be grieving the loss of a companion but also the loss of a coworker or the loss of your independence. If you cared for your pet through a protracted illness, you likely grew to love him even more. If you lived alone and the pet was your only companion, coming to terms with his loss can be even harder. If you were unable to afford expensive veterinary treatment to prolong the life of your pet, you may even feel a profound sense of guilt.

Grieving is a personal and highly individual experience. Some people find grief comes in stages, where they experience different feelings such as denial, anger, guilt, depression, and eventually acceptance and resolution. Others find that grief is more cyclical, coming in waves, or a series of highs and lows. The lows are likely to be deeper and longer at the beginning and then gradually become shorter and less intense as time goes by. Still, even years after a loss, a sight, a sound, or a special anniversary can spark memories that trigger a strong sense of grief.

Authors: Lawrence Robinson, Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., and Robert Segal, M.A

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Suggestions for Coping with Grieving and Loss of a Pet

Sorrow and grief are normal and natural responses to death. Like grief for humans, grief for animal companions can only be dealt with over time, but there are healthy ways to cope with the pain. Here are some suggestions:

  • Don’t let anyone tell you how to feel, and don’t tell yourself how to feel either. Your grief is your own, and no one else can tell you when it’s time to “move on” or “get over it.” Let yourself feel whatever you feel without embarrassment or judgment. It’s okay to be angry, to cry or not to cry. It’s also okay to laugh, to find moments of joy, and to let go when you’re ready.
  • Reach out to others who have lost pets. If your own friends, family members, therapist, or clergy do not fully understand the grief of pet loss, find someone who does—a person who has also lost a beloved pet may better understand what you’re going through. Check out online message boards, pet loss hotlines, and pet loss support groups—see the Resources section for details.
  • Seek professional help if you need it. If your grief is persistent and interferes with your ability to function, your doctor or a mental health professional can evaluate you for depression.
  • Rituals can help healing. A funeral can help you and your family members openly express your feelings. Ignore people who think it’s silly to hold a funeral for a pet, and do what feels right for you.
  • Create a legacy. Preparing a memorial, planting a tree in memory of your pet, compiling a photo album or scrapbook, or otherwise sharing the memories you enjoyed with your pet, can create a legacy to celebrate the life of your animal companion. Remembering the fun and love you shared with your pet can help you to eventually move on.
  • Look after yourself. The stress of losing a pet can quickly deplete your energy and emotional reserves. Looking after your physical and emotional needs will help you get through this difficult time. Eat a healthy diet, get plenty of sleep, and exercise regularly to release endorphins.
  • If you have other pets, try to maintain your normal routine. Surviving pets can also experience loss when a pet dies, or they may become distressed by your sorrow, maintaining their daily routines, or even increasing exercise and play times will not only benefit the surviving pets but may also help to elevate your outlook too.
  • Try to find new meaning and joy in life. Caring for a pet previously occupied your time and boosted your morale and optimism. Try to fill that time by volunteering, picking up a long-neglected hobby, taking a class, helping friends care for their pets, or even by getting another pet when the time feels right.
  • Stay connected with friends. Pets, dogs especially, can help seniors meet new people or regularly connect with friends and neighbors while out on a walk or in the dog park, for example. Having lost your pet, it’s important that you don’t now spend day after day alone. Try to spend time with at least one person every day. Regular face-to-face contact can help you ward off depression and stay positive. Call up an old friend or neighbor for a lunch date or join a club.
  • Boost your vitality with exercise. Pets help many older adults stay active and playful, which can boost the immune system and increase energy. It’s important to keep up your activity levels after the loss of your pet. Check with your doctor before starting an exercise program and then find an activity that you enjoy. Exercising in a group—by playing a sport such as tennis or golf, or taking an exercise or swimming class—can also help you connect with others.

Authors: Lawrence Robinson, Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., and Robert Segal, M.A

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Getting Another Dog or Cat: Moving on After Pet Loss

There are many wonderful reasons to once again share your life with a companion animal, but the decision of when to do so is a very personal one. It may be tempting to rush out and fill the void left by your pet’s death by immediately getting another pet. In most cases, it’s best to mourn the old pet first, and wait until you’re emotionally ready to open your heart and your home to a new animal.

Some retired seniors living alone, however, may find it hardest to adjust to life without a pet. If taking care of an animal provided you with a sense of purpose and self-worth as well as companionship, you may want to consider getting another pet at an earlier stage. Of course, seniors also need to consider their own health and life expectancy when deciding on a new pet.

Authors: Lawrence Robinson, Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., and Robert Segal, M.A

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