“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever been through.” Though it might surprise those without pets, that’s what I’ve heard from some who’ve lost an animal. If you’re grieving a pet and feeling awful, you’re not an oddball—as a vet and social worker at Brooklyn’s Hope Veterinary, I can tell you that this reaction is perfectly common. Animals have lived with humans for thousands of years, but over the last few generations our domestic animals have transitioned from providing protection and pest control to providing loving, unconditional relationships. In fact, pets frequently live 10 to 15 years with their humans, much longer than the average marriage lasts!
The inevitable loss of our pets can be as devastating as losing any human companion. But our society doesn’t have prescribed rituals to support bereaved pet owners; there’s no expectation of funerals or memorial services. Instead, people often receive a day or two of condolences via Facebook followed by silence, or worse, questions like, “When are you getting another one?” That might work for a TV, but not for the furry love of your life. One never completely “gets over” the loss of a pet, but there are ways to make the experience less devastating. Here are some ideas:
- Invite your friends to “sit shiva” (gather and mourn) with you for a few days after the loss. You’ll be feeling vulnerable, and company and conversation can be powerful medicine.
- Post on your Facebook page or send a mass email asking people for memories and photos. Friends are often stumped about how to support a grieving pal, so ask for support in a specific way.
- Plan a memorial gathering, and host it at home or at a place that was special to your pet, like a park.
- Make a scrapbook (real or digital) of photos, keepsakes, and stories. If you’re digitally inclined, make a tribute Web site.
- Write a letter to your pet, telling him or her what they meant to you, and how they changed your life.
- Don’t worry if you can’t bring yourself to clean up your pet’s belongings right away. It’s common to leave bowls, leashes, and collars out for months after the loss. Even the first time you vacuum can feel really hard.
- Monitor your feelings, and your eating, drinking, and sleeping habits. It’s fine to mourn, but if you’re noticing unhealthy patterns lasting longer than a week or two, get help from places like pet-loss hotlines, support groups at veterinary clinics, online forums, bereavement therapists, or pastoral counselors.
- Remember that eventually, the pain you feel from this loss will fade and lessen slightly. But you’ll never forget your pet, or lose the feeling of the special love the two of you shared.
Illustrated by Jensine Eckwall
By Juliet Sternberg, LMSW
This interview first appeared in our Dec/Jan print edition of BUST
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The opinions expressed on the BUST blog are those of the authors themselves and do not necessarily reflect the position of BUST Magazine or its staff.