Grieving for a pet
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Nikolaos Souvlakis ( MBACP Accred. & Reg., EACac, MBPsS)
20th March, 2016
The bond, have you ever considered the bond that we form with our pets? What is the attachment with our pets that when it is broken through separation, death or loss, we start experiencing the painful emotion of grieving? Sometimes, your friends or family members might not understand the importance that your pet had for you and the deep connection that you have formed with them. In these moments, it is important to find someone who can understand you.
There are some events that intensify that process of grief. If for example you have experienced a loss or death in the past, the death of your pet might intensify the grieving process. In addition, when you live with a pet, you will share significant events in your life with them, therefore, the bond formed is strong and thus the grieving can be compounded by that bond.
The uniqueness about grieving is that everyone experiences it differently and in their own time. No two people grieve in the same way. Some might be able to deal with their pet’s death quicker than others and those people do not seek support or guidance to overcome their bereavement. However, for those that might find it difficult to overcome the loss, they might start feeling overwhelmed by the death of their beloved animal. They might also start thinking that life might not have much of a meaning without their animal. In these occasions, it is important to be able to recognise whether someone can come to terms with that loss and not ignore their feelings. Grieving is a natural process and it is beneficial to work through the emotions attached to grief in order to start the healing of the emotional scars.
There is no right or wrong way of expressing or communicating your grief. Some might isolate themselves and grieve in silence and others might want to cry and talk about it. Grief is an individual experience and many factors are contributed to how we usually cope with it. The first step to grieving is to realise the loss of the beloved pet and that grieving is not just a set of emotions, but a deep experience stemming from the loss, the gap that the pet left in our life. The grieving process does not necessarily start when the pet passes away, but when we as carers we hear that the pet is ill, is suffering with a chronic illness or showing signs of old age. In these cases it is always beneficial to pay attention to the emotions attached to these realisations.
Grief can be a roller coaster of emotions that has many angles and turns and at times feelings come back to torment our thoughts. Grief can be clustered in five major categories:
Shock leaves us feeling numb for a while, we are unable to think or focus. Feelings of anxiety, irritation, fast heartbeat, nausea, thirst and sweating may follow. We may also lose sense of time. Shock will usually last until the mind has processed the information.
Like shock, denial is a defence which we apply to protect ourselves from the painful news of losing our pet. Therefore we build the denial defence to protect from the trauma. We might avoid facing the reality and carry on as though nothing happened, and therefore nothing in our lives has to change.
Sadness and guilt
Guilt is the most painful feeling for us when we are going through the grieving process. Guilt can completely consume us. No matter how well prepared we think we are to face death, the intensity of the feelings accompanying death are always painful. In our quest to find a reason for our pet’s death we start self-blaming ourselves. Guilt needs to be managed carefully and we might need to seek support. The focus in these occasions needs to be placed on what we did right for our pet, the love and the happiness we gave and took from the pet.
Depression is the stage we most often think about in relation to grieving. For many people, losing a pet may be one of the saddest experiences they will ever have and depression can develop at any time and to varying degrees. It can also affect our physical well-being, we may find it difficult to eat, sleep, concentrate or carry out fundamental daily tasks.
The emotional stages are often accompanied by physical symptoms, such as:
- Lack of concentration.
As grief is complex, it can also accompanied by cognitive manifestations, such as:
- Doubt, especially in cases of euthanisia.
- Blame on others.
The reasons why we might feel guilt comes from thinking that:
- We did not do enough to save the animal.
- We did not feed the pet properly, even though we did.
- We should have foreseen it and not gone to work.
- We might feel that we have abandoned the pet.
The social aspects that we might experience when we are in a grieving process include social isolation and the urgency to replace your pet with another one.
During the grieving process it is important for the healing to allow us to experience the emotions that are coming with the loss. In the case of euthanasia, which feels a very painful decision with huge responsibility of your pet’s life, it is a fine line between the right thing to do and feeling guilty. However, euthanasia may be seen as the ultimate statement of your deep bond with your pet, as it is a selfless act and an act of kindness. You may be expressing your love to your pet, giving them a respectful end without suffering or/and pain. Yet the thoughts that we might have can be torturing, thinking that we are selfish and cruel. In these cases we might start punishing ourselves.
It is important to seek support in these hard times. Where speaking to a friend or family member will often help, you may need another person to talk to. This is where counselling can help. A professional will help you accept what has happened and learn to process the feelings and move on.
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