Having a dog can be the best feeling in the world. They are our best friends, our family, our motivation for leaving the house and sometimes our reason for getting up in the morning. They provide routine, cuddles and an unwavering listening ear. Unfortunately, all this love can result in overwhelming pain when it comes time to say goodbye.
The events leading up to a loss are often highly emotional. Whether this is preceded by witnessing the gradual deterioration of our beloved pet or by shock and trauma. It is often the case that we have to make difficult choices that can leave us with feelings of guilt and self-doubt.
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Doubting your decision is perfectly natural. Even with the advice of a vet and your own instincts, it can be a heavy burden. Your vet will be very experienced in helping with making these decisions and many will have faced the same difficulties in their own lives. So ask questions and get the support you need.
Your Emotions are valid
Whatever the circumstances are leading up to the bereavement, the heartache that follows is often raw and relentless. The strength of these emotions can take us by surprise.
The loss of a pet can feel equal to losing a friend or family member. The pain experienced is a testimony to the bond you had.
Like with all forms of grief there is no “normal”, right, or wrong. Emotional responses can include an inability to accept the loss, insomnia, loss of appetite, depression, guilt, extreme tearfulness, anger, and shock to name just a few. What frequently complicates matters, is that the grief we feel of losing a pet is not always understood by all. Even if it is, it’s not something that is widely discussed or perhaps admitted. If there are people in your circle who make you feel like you are overreacting and should be doing better than you are, try to allow yourself some space from them, especially in the early stages.
What is most important in this time of heartache, is to accept that all your feelings are valid. Trying to deny your feelings or feel something else is not helpful and will only make things harder. It is also important that we acknowledge and accept that everyone deals with things differently. You may be unable to hold back your tears, whereas others in your household may stay dry-eyed. This doesn’t mean they don’t care, or that you should be displaying less emotion. The important thing is to respect the other person’s way of dealing with things and be ready to support each other.
How long will I feel like this; will I always feel this sad?
There is no clear-cut timescale to moving past grief. It is likely you will always feel sad but in time the feelings will grow to be tolerable and less consuming. It is likely that over time the beautiful memories that you shared with your pet become the focus of your thoughts and the more intense pain will subside.
Below I will run through my top five recommendations for dealing with loss:
1.Look after yourself:
Self-care is vital! Ensure you are getting enough sleep, nutrients and exercise. Try to surround yourself with understanding individuals and ensure you are making time for enjoyable activities. It may feel like you will never laugh or smile again but if you do, don’t feel guilty, life is going to go on regardless.
2.Keep your routine:
Having a dog usually goes hand in hand with having a solid routine governed by feeding and exercise times. Try to keep to these routines as best you can, making alterations when needed so you are still able to reap some of the benefits without the processes feeling too empty. Now could be the chance to try out a new walk that wasn’t so dog friendly or add some me-time to your day when you would normally be serving up your pet’s dinner.
3.Keep the memories close:
There are an abundance of pet memorial items available today. From frames to keep collars in, to jewellery containing your pet’s hair or ashes. You could name a star after your pet, commission a painting or put a photo album together with all your favourite pictures. The process of creating an album can be extremely therapeutic as you look back at all the happy times you shared together.
4.Honour your pet’s life:
If it feels right to you and your other family members, why not organise a funeral/ memorial service? This can be especially good if there are children in the family as everyone can get involved by contributing something that means something to them. This could be a poem, sharing your favourite memories or choosing a plant for your garden and planting it together.
You could even decide together to start a new tradition and donate some time or money to an animal charity on your pet’s birthday.
Talking through your feelings with loved ones is so important and can produce feelings of peace. Your instinctive reaction may be to withdraw and not burden others. But this will only intensify your feelings by allowing them to build up, and over time these repressed feelings will most likely manifest into more destructive forms.
If you really don’t feel like you have anyone to talk to consider a professional. Ask your GP for advice or your veterinary practice, who should be able to recommend pet bereavement counsellors. See the list at the end of the post for some suggestions of where you can turn.
If you’re uncomfortable talking, get your feelings down on paper. This can be a therapeutic way of dealing with loss and addressing your own personal grief.
What about the Children?
This may be the first time a child is dealing with a bereavement and it can be extremely emotional and confusing. There are many good resources that go into more depth in this subject, a few of which are listed below, but as a general rule communication is key.
Be truthful (but sensitive) and keep your language clear. Saying things like ‘gone to sleep’ or ‘gone away’ can be confusing and not helpful so instead use words such as died or dead. At this point an explanation of what death means may be needed. It is a tricky topic but relating this process to all living things such as the flowers in your garden can help.
Also, be sure to explain how your pet is no longer suffering or in any pain. Keep talking, keep reminding them of happier times and remember for your own self-preservation that children are often the most unpredictable in their responses. A lack of a response doesn’t mean they aren’t dealing with it in their own way.
Should I get another pet?
This is a very tricky one and so personal to the individual. For some, the distraction is what they need. For others, they need time to grieve without the guilt of passing their love on to another. Whatever feels right to you, just make sure you spend adequate time researching your next family member to make sure it is the right fit for you and your needs, rushing into this decision unprepared often leads to more heartache for all concerned.
Additional resources for dealing with loss of a pet:
- The Blue Cross Pet Bereavement Support Service: 0800 096 6606
- PDSA National Collection of Pet Memories Freephone: 0800 591248
- Goodbye, Dear Friend by Virginia Ironside (ISBN 978-1906217938)
- Companion Animal Death by Mary F Stewart (ISBN 978-0750640763)
- A Loving Farewell by Davina Woodcock (ISBN 978-0954163600)
- Absent Friend: Coping with the loss of a treasured pet by Laura and Martyn Lee (ISBN 978-1850540892)
Further reading for dealing with loss with a child:
- Missing my pet by Alex Lambert (ISBN 978-0955411816)
- Goodbye Mousie by Robie H Harris (ISBN 978-0689871344)
- Always and Forever by Alan Durant (ISBN 978-0552548779)
Read the rest of the posts in this series here;