• Grieving the loss of a pet is never easy, but we can help our grief process and healing along with self-care and counseling. 
  • First, though, it’ll help to understand why grieving the loss of a pet is so difficult: For one, they aren’t just pets but family members.
  • Our pain can also be exacerbated by guilt if we had to make the difficult decision of laying our pet to rest.
  • A few self-care essentials during this time include fulfilling your basic needs, thinking about positive memories, and memorializing your pet.
  • If your grief is interfering with your day-to-day or causing problems in important areas of life, you might need additional support and should consider talking to a grief counselor.

In January of last year, my boyfriend and I jumped on the bandwagon and adopted a pandemic puppy. We named her Summer (thought it fitting for a golden retriever) and quickly fell in love. She’s like our child — we’ve watched her grow into the stick-loving, ball-chasing, somersaulting, silly, loving, devoted dog she is today.

Summer is joy. But sometimes when I look at her, I feel sad. Because I can’t help but think about the day we’ll lose her. Just like we lost Max and Delilah, two of our other beloved pets, a mere month apart.

Unfortunately, we (and most of you, I’m sure) have loved and lost a pet before, and we’ll love and lose a pet again. Grieving the loss of a pet is never easy, but the good news is that we can supplement the grief process and help our healing along with both self-care and counseling. First, though, it’ll help to understand why grieving the loss of a pet is so difficult.

Why Is Grieving the Loss of a Pet So Difficult?

They’re family.

Max was Andrew’s first cat: a 20-pound Maine Coone who liked to roll over and relax on his back with his paws in the air. And Delilah was my first dog: a golden retriever who greeted everyone with a toy in her mouth and cries of love. 

Our pets aren’t just animals — they’re family. In many cases, we’ve raised and watched them grow. We’ve gotten to know their personalities, each with unique traits and quirks that we might find endearing, ridiculous, heart-melting, or maddening. Most importantly, we’ve developed relationships with them: We vent to them, we seek comfort in them, we rely on them, and we love them. 

And so when we lose a pet, we lose a family member. As such, it’s often just as painful as losing a human. 

We feel guilty.

In many situations, we have to make the difficult decision of laying our pets to rest. This was the case with Max and Delilah. In their final days, they both struggled to breathe — Max had a heart condition common among his breed, while Delilah suffered from a tumor pressing against her lungs. Ultimately, we decided to put them out of their misery.

But doing so cued our own misery. On top of missing our pets, we dealt with guilt. We wondered if it was the right thing to do. We stressed over what-ifs: What if we tried the medication longer? What if we’d caught it sooner? What if we waited a few more days?

Our lives are changed.

A great loss like that of a pet changes our lives — even our day-to-day changes, which makes their absence that much more apparent

When Delilah passed, my dad (who is far from an animal lover) took it the hardest. “I didn’t expect to miss her so much,” he said. No more early morning walks or giving her a treat when they returned. No more lugging her bag of dog food out of the closet or refilling her water bowl. He even missed yelling at her to get off the couch, he said. And he refuses to sell it or give it away because “that’s where she laid.”

Losing a pet is a disruption. And grieving the loss of a pet can change us, too. But if we give our grief the proper time and attention it deserves, we can be changed for the better.

5 Self-Care Essentials When Grieving the Loss of a Pet

Self-care is always important. But it’s especially vital when we’re going through a difficult time in our lives, such as when we’re grieving the loss of a pet. 

The self-care essentials below are designed to help those in this very situation. As with any other self-care routine, you should implement the practices that work well for you — meaning those that align with your needs, your schedule, and your interests:

1) Start with the basics.

First and foremost, you need to make sure that you’re meeting your basic needs. When we’re going through a challenging time, it’s easy to forget about eating or showering, and it’s common not to get enough sleep. So take a moment to think: When’s the last time you ate a decent meal? Have you showered recently? Could you use a nap or a couple of extra hours of sleep tonight?

2) Lean into your emotions.

If you’re avoiding them instead, don’t worry — you aren’t the only one. It’s natural to sweep difficult emotions under the rug. But the reality is that we can’t heal and move forward until we confront how we truly feel.

Carve out dedicated time to process your loss. This might mean making a phone call to a friend or family member today, and pulling out your journal to write for 30 minutes tomorrow. Know this won’t be a one-and-done kind of deal. You’ll have to make time for it on a regular basis.

3) Practice active reflection.

Make a conscious effort to think about your pet — to think about the life that you shared together. Try to focus on positive memories when you engage in active reflection, as this will encourage you to experience gratitude instead of pain.

4) Memorialize your pet.

A big step in the grief process is saying an official goodbye, which serves as a form of closure. You might choose to hold a funeral or service; create a special memorial in your home for them, like a shadow box that contains their tags and an imprint of their paw; simply hang your favorite photo of your pet; or all of the above for good measure.

After Max passed, we created an area for him on a bookshelf in our living room with his urn and one of his favorite cat toys. We also had a ton of photos printed and put them all over the house. 

5) Seek comfort in loved ones, including your living pets.

Finally, don’t shy away from your loved ones during your grief process. Open up to your friends and family when you’re feeling down. You could even ask them to recount their favorite memories with your pet or to share any photos they might have. Also, if you have other pets, love a little extra on them. They could likely use some comfort right now, too. 

Pet Loss Support: Therapy for Grieving the Loss of a Pet

Remember, grieving the loss of a pet is challenging for most pet owners. It’s normal to struggle and experience tough emotions. However, if your grief is interfering with your day-to-day, causing you to feel depressed, or contributing to problems at work or in your relationships, you should consider talking to a grief counselor.

The primary goal of grief counseling is to help you grieve in a healthy way. This can be achieved with different interventions including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps you identify and change negative thinking patterns; acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), which helps you accept negative feelings and work toward healthier behaviors; art therapy, which promotes healing through creative self-expression; and more. 

Your counselor can help you work through the difficult thoughts and feelings related to the loss of your pet: the what-ifs, the guilt, the anger, the sadness. But in order to do this, you must be open and honest with them as well as yourself. Your counselor will then be able to validate those feelings and begin to help you process them. 

Your grief counselor can also help you find effective outlets to turn to outside of the therapy room. For example, they might encourage you to pick up your guitar, after finding out you used to play. Or, they might ask you to journal about how you’re feeling on any given day. These practices will support your self-care efforts, allowing you to channel and release any heavy emotions. And they’ll be based on your needs, your preferences, your personality.

Losing a pet is awful. Grieving the loss of a pet is heart-wrenching. But the love exchanged between you and your pet outweighs the pain that you might be feeling right now. Hold on to that love. And do what you need to process your loss, whether that’s focusing on self-care, talking to your therapist, or both.

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