Dealing with Pet Loss

All pet owners know that they will probably outlive their pets and this is something they need to be prepared for, but it doesn’t make the pain any easier every time our beloved friends leave us. Sometimes pets run away or get stolen too. Many of us eventually manage our loss and move on, but there are many who don’t. Unbearable grief overwhelms them and they simply don’t know how to deal with it. There’s a very reasonable explanation for why this happens. Our pets are an integral part of our lives, and when a beloved pet is lost it is mourned for like any family member, sometimes much more! Unlike the elaborate sending off that humans get, however, society isn’t terribly sympathetic towards pet deaths. We’re somewhat forced to curb our feelings, tone down our displays of sadness for our pets. We don’t get compassionate leave, if we staged a full-on funeral for our pets we’re seen as a little strange, and worst of all we get the ‘it’s only a dog/cat, you can get another’ comments that are meant to be soothing but actually hurt more.

Of all the ways our pets can die, euthanasia is probably the hardest to deal with of all. Those of us faced with the prospect know logically that we’re ending our pets suffering and that they’ll be in a better place, but it doesn’t change the fact that making the decision to extinguish a life is an immense and terrible responsibility. Many struggle to accept it, even years later: Did I end his life too early without giving him enough of a chance? Did I let her suffer too long and leave it too late?

While we cannot receive verbal feedback from our pets, we can help ourselves accept their deaths by understanding our grief a little more. A grieving person goes through 5 phases:

1. Shock: Feelings of numbness and unreality dominate.

2. Denial: A refusal to accept that the loss has taken place. Pet loss often occur suddenly and denial can act as a pain buffer.

3. Anger: Intense feelings of (sometimes unreasonable) anger directed inward, or towards a specific family member, the world in general, the vet who euthanized the pet, or even the deceased pet for letting the death happen. ‘If only’ thoughts of regret are common.

4. Mourning: Often the longest-lasting phase for many, this is characterized by strong feelings of guilt, sadness, depression, crying bouts.

5. Acceptance: The reality of the loss is accepted and the person is able to move on.

Pet loss can be made more bearable and easier to move on from by keeping in mind the following:

1. Don’t be ashamed of the flood of emotions you may feel. Intense feelings of sadness, anger guilt, denial, loneliness or anxiety are all completely normal reactions to loss and are necessary for recovery.

2. Sometimes euthanasia is the best gift you could possibly give your pets, by putting their pain ahead of your own. If they aren’t eating or sleeping, are in obvious pain and discomfort, have lost interested in you and life, and the prognosis from the vet is poor, a sensible humane solution would be to put them out of suffering. Some pet owners want to hold their pets til their last breath, some feel they aren’t able to bear the grief of watching their pet being euthanized and prefer to part before the injection is administered. Choose the option that is the least traumatizing for you and your pet.

3. Give yourself time to grieve, not everyone recovers at the same rate.

4. Buying another pet right away to replace the old one is not a solution for grieving! Comparisons should not be made between the old pet and new. Make sure that when you are ready, you are fully prepared to start building again a healthy, loving long-term relationship with a new pet.

5. Look after your well-bring. Confide in friends and family, eat properly and make sure you get enough rest. Aim to maintain your regular routine if you feel the urge to sit at home day after day to mope.

6. Seek out alternative sources of pouring out your grief, such as writing your thoughts and feelings in a journal (or even a book like John Grogan), or join pet forums where you can be sure your loss will be understood by other pet lovers who have been through the same, and who could give you very encouraging advice about coping better.

7. Call a hotline if you have to speak with someone.

8. Sometimes a formal burial can go a long way in providing closure and helping the mourner move on. A home burial is a great idea if you have the space, but many pet owners cremate their pets’ remains and keep them in urns.

9. Keep happy memories of your pet alive, rather than the sad ones. Look for good photos to frame up or draw a sketch of your pet at his happiest and healthiest as you remember him, involved in his favourite activity.

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