Our pets are like family. They bring us unfettered joy and shower us with love—and when they pass away, the loss hits us hard. Losing a pet is, for many people, as devastating as losing a human friend or relative and it's really normal for that loss to be hard to deal with.
Here are some techniques that can help you cope with the death of a pet, whether its passing was expected or not.
How to deal with the expected death of a pet
Sometimes, you'll have warning that your pet's time on this earth is coming to an end. Just like humans, pets get old and sick and sometimes, the deterioration of their health is a slow process that, in effect, gives their loved ones time to prepare for their passing. If this is the case with your pet, here are some things you can do to cope with the loss:
Prepare a memorial for your pet:
Just like we honor human loved ones who have passed away with a grave site or other kind of memorial, we can take steps to establish a place to remember our pets and honor the happy times we've had with them. Maybe this means something traditional, like a headstone or buying an urn for the animal's ashes, but it could also mean spending extra time with your pet at their favorite spot and marking that spot (either physically or just mentally) as a place you will go to be with those memories after your pet passes.
Adopt another pet (or prepare to do so):
Adopting another pet isn't something you should rush into after the death of a beloved pet, but it's also something that can be right to do sooner than later, depending on your circumstances. For example, if you have multiple pets and your other animal(s) are especially bonded to the animal who is nearing the end of its life or depends on that animal for companionship, you might want to consider bringing a new pet into the family before the senior pet dies, to give the other animal(s) time to bond with it. This will give your other pet(s) a support system when the loss comes (because, to be clear, they will definitely notice and feel the loss). This can also be helpful if you have children or senior citizens in your household who are attached to the ailing animal.
Decide how to explain the death to any children in the pet's life:
Often, the death of a pet is a child's first experience with death. If there's a child in your house or even one who spends a lot of time with the animal in question (a niece, nephew, grandchild, etc.), take some time to consider how to explain the loss to them and be prepared to answer any questions they might have.
Educate yourself about your pet's condition:
The more you know about your pet's condition, whether it's a specific illness or just old age, the better prepared you'll be to say goodbye when the time comes and not to prolong your pet's life if the quality of life wouldn't warrant it. It's a sad reality to face, but knowing when to say goodbye (even when nothing in you feels ready to say goodbye) is one of the difficult decisions that comes with loving something as much as you love your pet.
How to deal with the unexpected death of a pet
Sometimes, we see the death of a pet coming, but other times, we have no idea. If the death of a pet comes from out of the blue, either as a result of an accident, a sudden health issue, or something else, the way you process that grief will be different than it would have been if you'd had time to mentally and emotionally prepare for the loss. Here are some techniques that might help you deal with the sudden and unexpected death of a pet.
Find a support group or hotline:
Finding support can be helpful no matter what the circumstances of your pet's death are, but if the death is sudden, it can hit in a profoundly hard way. You vet or local humane society or shelter should be able to help you find support groups and even hotlines to help you cope with the loss of your pet. These resources can be invaluable when you're in the throws of initial grief.
Find a trusted person to talk through any feelings of guilt with:
Oftentimes, pet owners feel guilty when their pet dies. Sometimes, it's a result of just having to be the person who makes the call to put the animal down, but in the case of sudden deaths, it can be even more pressing, especially if the owner feels responsible for the circumstances surrounding a tragic accident or for not seeing some sign of a sudden illness. Know that these things are not your fault, but that bottling the feelings of guilt up won't help you work through them. As renowned shame researcher Brené Brown says, "Shame cannot survive being spoken." Sharing your feelings of guilt or shame with a trusted, empathetic loved one is the best way to work through them and see things clearly.
When a pet's death comes out of nowhere, in particular if the death is the result of a sudden, unforeseen illness, then it's natural to have lingering questions. Don't be afraid to ask for the answers to those questions if that's what you need for closure. Your vet will be happy to talk through any questions you have.
Coping strategies for the loss of a pet, no matter what the circumstances
Own your grief:
The worst thing you can do is to try to fight or deny the grief that you feel. The loss you're feeling is real and legitimate and it's not just okay to experience that loss, it's vital to. If you don't allow yourself to experience the grief, you won't be able to move through it in a healthy way.
Write about your loss:
One of the best ways to work through feelings of grief, whether for a pet or anything else, is to get the feelings out on paper. The form this takes is totally up to you—some people journal, others write poetry or short stories or even letters to their pet. How you write the feelings down doesn't matter, what matters is that you take the time to put your feelings into words.
Honor your pet with a memorial fundraiser:
The Humane Society has a system in place to help pet owners easily set up a memorial fundraiser in their pet's honor. This won't bring your pet back, of course, but it will help you give back to other animals in need and to do so in your beloved pet's name.
Remember the good times:
Even if your pet is gone, the memories of the times you shared and the bond you had will never leave you. Honor that special relationship by keeping your pet in your memories and in your heart.