It is reasonable to assume that most of you have dealt with the death of a pet. According to the American Pet Product Association 2021’s United States Pet Owner Survey, over 90.5 million homes in the United States own a pet. That means nearly two thirds of the U.S. population have a four-legged or two-legged animal residing with them.
As a trained psychotherapist, I know the important role pets play in our daily lives. Often, my clients share with me how their pets helped them through their hardest moments in life. Pets offer companionship and they are there for us when we are struggling emotionally. According to Barclay Friends, pets can lower stress hormones like cortisol and increase serotonin which relates to happiness. There is lowered rates of depression and anxiety with pet ownership.
Given how much our pets mean to us, it can be devastating when your pet dies. Animals are seen as part of the family and provide unconditional love and support. Sometimes that cannot be said of all our two-legged family and friends.
I know first-hand that experiencing the death of a pet can shake up a family system. Two years ago, my beautiful 12-year-old rescued lab mix died from cancer. Prior to her passing, I spent weeks going to vet visits as they tested, prodded and poked with no answer as to why her health was declining. Finally, the tests revealed she had a brain tumor. Eventually I had to make the gut-wrenching choice to end her suffering. It was one of the worst days I have ever experienced. Even writing this now, my eyes fill with tears. That same year our rescued guinea pig and beautiful beta fish died too! It was a very sad time for me and my family.
When you spend time together day in and day out, saying goodbye to your pet companion is painful. It does not make a difference whether you raised your pet when they were a baby, or you took them in later in their life. Pets have a profound impact on you personally, your routine, and your home life.
It may take only a thought, memory, or visual reminder of your pet to get the tears falling down your cheeks. You may be at a friend’s house, in a grocery store, or driving and you can be triggered and filled with grief. This is especially true when your loss is fresh. The pain will be intense for a while – maybe a very long while. And it is okay. It is okay to cry, wail, grieve, get angry, and feel all the feelings.
The death of a pet can trigger an upswing in anxiety and depression. I want to normalize this and validate it. There is no shame if you find yourself trying to cope with your mental health after your pet has died. Reaching out to a therapist who works with pet grief is a beautiful way to receive support. A therapist can work with you to help reduce and potentially let go of shame, guilt, deep sadness, regret, and the other emotions that have risen. We therapist fur/feather/fins/scales/shells moms and dads get it. Look for a therapist trained in grief and loss.
SUPPORT AFTER LOSING YOUR PET
Reach out to others who understand and will support you. Turn to family members and friends. Be kind to yourself and allow time for the healing process. Journal about your pet and your memories together. Set up a memorial shrine or area in your home or outside with photos, toys, and maybe even your pet’s ashes. Try creating new routines. If you have children, help them grieve. This may be the first time they have experienced death and it is important to not belittle your children’s feelings. Be open and honest with your child. Down the road, you may decide to introduce a new pet to the household. There are other ways to be around pets. You can volunteer for an animal rescue organization or even babysit for a friend if they are going out of town. If your grief begins to interfere with your daily life, consider calling a mental health provider to help you through the grieving process.