When your pet’s life comes to an end, you may feel like your own life has turned upside down. Pet-related grief is real and deep, and can be challenging to navigate—especially when your friends and family can’t empathize. But, by better understanding this grief, acknowledging its presence, and taking ownership of your emotions, you can—in time—make peace with your pet’s passing. 

What makes pet loss so difficult?

For most owners, pets are more than furry companions—they’re family members. Because of  this close relationship, many owners find pet-related grief equal to or more difficult than losing a person. 

The sheer amount of time we spend with our pets can leave a great void in our hearts and lives. While kids grow up and people come and go, our pets are ever-present and dependent on us—we experience their entire lives. Pets provide constant companionship, are someone to care for, and give us purpose. For many, our pets are part of our identity, and we may struggle to know what to do with our days or ourselves once they are gone.

What is normal grief after losing a pet?

Grief is a natural and entirely appropriate response to pet loss, although grief cannot be defined, or explained as a step-by-step process. The well-known Five Stages of Grief (i.e., denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) are not linear stages—they are a fluid state with highs and lows that include some, none, or all stages. Try not to set expectations for how you think you’ll feel, or how you think you should feel so that others will understand. Honor your pet’s memory by owning your grief, no matter its manifestation.

Grief has no timeline. While your emotional reactions may lose intensity or become less frequent, you do not “get over” or recover from grief—you always carry the emotion. Be kind to yourself during the grieving process—especially if yours does not look like someone else’s. Allow yourself as much time as you need—whether days, weeks, or years—to mourn your pet. Depriving or denying your grief can affect your mental and physical health, and delay emotional healing.

Why doesn’t everyone recognize pet grief?

Pet owners who mourn their lost companion are often belittled or dismissed by friends and family, but they likely do not understand how deeply pets can impact a person’s life, or may relate differently to animals. Unfortunately, bereaved pet owners can feel isolated, question their natural reactions, or be driven to suppress the grieving process because of others’ lack of understanding.

As you experience your pet’s loss, you must remember to deflect or ignore unsympathetic remarks or advice such as “Aren’t you over that?” and “It was only a pet,” or comments that compare your loss to the loss of a person, to minimize your sorrow. These people may mean well by trying to “provide perspective,” but you must recognize that your emotions are valid, and your grief cannot be measured, quantified, or compared.

What are some healthy ways to cope with pet grief?

Pet grief resources can help you navigate your pain in a healthy and healing way. Intentionally acknowledging your loss and celebrating your pet’s life can give you closure, while connecting with others on their similar pet-loss journey can provide support and create a community. Some beneficial techniques include:

  • Memorialize your pet — Create a lasting tribute to honor your pet’s life, such as a beautiful urn, personalized photo frame, scrapbook, commissioned painting, or memory garden. 
  • Talk to someone who understands — If you’re struggling with pet-related grief, contact our veterinary social worker who can provide grief support. If you’re experiencing intense depression, anxiety, or suicide ideation, you are not alone—immediately call 911, 211, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-8255), or the Crisis Text Line (741741), and you will be matched with a caring professional. 
  • Focus your thoughts — Replace thoughts about your pet’s final moments with happy memories that you made together. Remember your pet for who they were—not how their life ended.
  • Connect with others — The Stack Veterinary Hospital Pet Loss Support Group provides a welcoming in-person opportunity to share your story and connect with fellow pet lovers. Sessions are professionally facilitated by a veterinary social worker and available as needed. Visit our website for more information

For more coping ideas, visit our previous article on pet loss.

How can I help other pet owners?

Despite personal experience, knowing what to do or what to say to a grieving pet owner is difficult and, unfortunately, this often stops people from offering their sympathy or support. Help someone during their grief with the following advice:

  • Listen — Sit with someone and listen, without judgment or input. Don’t try to offer advice or clichés—sometimes no words are necessary.
  • Don’t set expectations — No matter how well you know someone, resist “knowing” their grief. Give them time and space to heal at their own pace.
  • Send a card  — Send a sympathetic note or gift acknowledging their loss and their pet-owner relationship.
  • Don’t avoid the topic — Ask how the pet owner is doing, and share a personal memory about the pet. Unless mentioning the pet triggers a strong reaction, talking about the loss can be therapeutic.

End-of-life care and pet loss are the most challenging parts of pet ownership. Stack Veterinary Hospital is here to help you navigate the difficult journey. For additional grief resources or guidance, contact us.