Chances are, you are living with a furry friend. According to the APPA National Pet Owners Survey 2021-2022, 90.5 million households – that’s 70% of US households – own a pet.
The Cleveland Clinic is a not for profit academic medical center. Advertising on our website supports our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. politics
Although people choose pets for many reasons, the important role these animals play in our daily lives cannot be overestimated, says clinical health psychologist Amy Sullivan, PsyD.
“We often adopt pets because we struggle with ourselves and we need that company. During the pandemic or at other difficult times in your life, you will often hear, “This pet got me through such a difficult part of life.” This emotional connection with your pet is so important. “
Dealing with Pet Loss: Why Is It So Painful?
Given the convenience pets bring, it’s understandable that the loss can be emotionally devastating. “Our animals become part of our family,” says Dr. Sullivan. “They offer unconditional love and support that people don’t get from many different places.”
As an example, she cites how excited pets can be to see you when you return home after your absence. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve been away for two hours or two days, the way they greet you is just so beautiful,” says Dr. Sullivan. “It’s like you’re their world.”
Losing this unconditional love is understandably very difficult. “As humans, we have to feel that love and connection and know that something makes us special,” she adds. “That’s why it becomes so painful when we lose our animals.”
Mourning a pet after euthanasia
Understandably, it’s perfectly normal that euthanasia can make it much more difficult to mourn the loss of a pet. “We want pet deaths to occur naturally when they are old,” she says. “But part of the problem is that their lives are so short. You never have enough time with your pet. “
Euthanasia is often the right decision for your pet to stop hurting them. But knowing that a health decision you made resulted in your death can add extra guilt and make your pain and grief worse.
“You definitely don’t want to see your pet suffer,” says Dr. Sullivan. “But there is this grief that comes with that guilt and of asking yourself, ‘Am I making the right decision?’ It is therefore important to make this decision with your trusted doctors and other family members. “
Is mourning a lost pet different than mourning a person?
Sullivan emphasizes that grief after death is not a “one size fits all.” In other words, it’s impossible to compare your response to losing a loved one to losing a loved one. “Some people have a harder time grieving a pet,” she says. “It is more difficult for others to mourn someone. For some people, both are very, very difficult. But I don’t think a pet death causes any less distress than a human one. “
However, with a pet being such a valued member of your family, it is not uncommon to feel a death very deeply. “It depends on your relationship with a pet,” adds Dr. Sullivan added. “Pets are a part of your life. They provide that extra support and love, and they got you through some very difficult times. And so in some cases it is even more difficult to mourn a pet than to mourn a human. “
How to Mourn a Pet
As with grief for a loved one, dealing with the loss of a pet takes time. Please note the following:
Realize that your grief is valid
Dr. Sullivan says it’s perfectly okay to be an emotional wreck after a pet dies. “There have been times when patients in my practice were absolutely devastated by the loss of their pet or the decision to euthanize a pet than anything I’ve ever seen them excited about,” she notes.
This extreme response to loss stems from the idea that pets are part of our family. “You are perhaps the most important thing to a person, frankly,” says Dr. Sullivan. “We have to normalize that this grief is real.”
Realize that grief looks different for everyone
Experts often explain grief using the Kübler-Ross model, which outlines five different phases you go through: denial, anger, negotiation, depression, and acceptance. (Dr. Sullivan prefers to use “adaptation” over acceptance: “Acceptance is more passive, while becoming more adaptive is more active. It makes us ask, ‘What else can we do?’”)
However, your journey through these phases can be different even from one day to the next. “There is no single way to address grief, denial, anger, negotiation, or any of these phases,” explains Dr. Sullivan. “Everyone goes through these phases at their own unique time and in their own unique way and can go back and forth. It’s not a linear phase. “
“The important thing is that we recognize that people are experiencing these feelings and that we support them and guide them in each of these different emotional areas,” she adds.
Create physical monuments
Physical memorials are one of the easiest ways to remember a pet. When Dr. Sullivan’s family lost a beloved Yorkshire terrier, Reiley, the vet sent them condolence cards and gave them a printout of the dog’s paw and snout prints alongside a poem called The Rainbow Bridge.
Dr. Sullivan also put together a souvenir photo book, and she still keeps the terrier’s collar and charms in a special place of honor in her home. Her family also created a special place in their back yard near his burial. “We set up a room with a special flower that blooms for him year after year, and he has a little statue with his name on it so we can go back and see it,” she says.
Join a support group
Some people prefer to mourn privately, out of public. For those who find solace in speaking to other people, joining a support group can be helpful, says Dr. Sullivan. These can be social media based rooms for grievers or even personal groups.
Make sure your whole family is supported
Losing a fuzzy buddy affects everyone in your household. Dr. Sullivan says that you may need to comfort your other pets as they are also experiencing grief. “If you have multiple pets in the household, they will mourn the loss of their companion.”
Children may also need extra support, as losing a pet can be their first personal experience of death. “This could be your first chance to really lose someone,” says Dr. Sullivan. “We need to make sure we support them in situations of grief, death, and dying. It’s very new to them and can be very scary to them. “
Most of all, keep in mind that it takes time to come to terms with the loss of a pet. You may not get another pet right away – and even if you do welcome another pet into your family, things will still take some getting used to. “In the end, you find that your pet wants you to be happy,” says Dr. Sullivan. “I don’t think you’ll ever go on – you move forward and the relationship you have with each pet is different. Nobody will replace that. “