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Pet Bereavement: You Are Not Alone

Dog running on the beach towards heaven advice

Pet Bereavement

© Shutterstock

National Grief Awareness Week will be taking place in the UK between the 2nd and the 8th of December. With a goal to raise awareness of all aspects of grief and loss, this week is an opportunity to shed light on the pain owners feel when they lose a beloved pet.

By Justine Seraphin

Feeling grief over the loss of a pet is often considered ‘taboo’. Especially for those who are not animal lovers themselves, grieving over a non-human being can seem unusual. Many bereaved owners have felt judged or dismissed by friends or colleagues who do not understand their pain. Yet, there is nothing more normal than feeling sad after a loved pet has passed away.

Why are we so sad when our pets die?

Wamiz recently carried out a study in order to find out more about how pet owners dealt with the passing of a pet. So if you are feeling out of place after losing your dog or cat, rest assured you are not alone.

Of 9,750 people surveyed, 89% of them said they believed losing a pet was as hard as losing a human loved one. 

And why wouldn’t it be? Unlike many humans in our lives, pets are with us constantly (or almost). Like a life partner, they are the first we see when we get up in the morning, the last we see when we go to bed at night. Like children, they depend on us for food, health, and love. Like parents, they are a comfort to us when we are upset and stressed. When we lose a pet, we lose all three. The mere fact that they live in the house with us also means they leave a huge emptiness behind. 

Pets are often with us for several years, especially when we’ve had them from a very young age. We share strong moments with them all throughout their lives. We enjoy the good times together: we go for walks, we cuddle on the couch, we celebrate birthdays. And we also go through the painful times together: a move, a divorce, an illness. Our pets are always there, for better or for worse. Unlike humans, pets are uncomplicated. They are loyal and reliable all throughout their lives. They never criticise us or leave us, making the feeling of losing them that much more heartbreaking. 

Mourning the loss of a pet can take time.  In fact, many pet owners say it can take months or even years before they start to feel normal again. This is in accordance to our survey, in which two thirds of owners responded that it was still very painful for them to talk about the death of a pet, even after 3 years of it having occurred. 

They also describe the same feelings of grief one feels when they’ve lost a human family member or friend: numbness, anger, anxiety, difficulty eating or sleeping, avoidance of painful reminders, and mistaking sounds or sights for the missing loved one. 

In the case of pets, guilt is an especially present feeling for bereaved owners. Indeed, because our pets depend on us for survival, we often blame ourselves when something has gone wrong: ‘if only I hadn’t left the gate open’, ‘if only I had fed her better quality food’, ‘if only I had seen the signs of illness earlier’. Some owners also have to make the difficult decision of having a pet euthanized. This was the case for 90% of our respondents. In these situations, owners may wonder if they made the right decision, and often feel like they’ve betrayed their companion.

Dog turned into an angel
This little angel waiting for his owner in heaven! ©Shutterstock

However, one must remember that the simple feeling of pain and depression that we experience after our pets leave us is proof that we loved them dearly, and so, there is no guilt to be felt.

What can we do to get through our grief?

Saying goodbye

Firstly, pet owners like to give their pets a proper goodbye. According to our survey, 16% of owners only opted for communal cremation, while 56% opted for individual cremation, and 27% for burial. This shows how important it is for us to avoid an abrupt end to our pets’ presence in our lives. 

According to UK law, it is legal to bury your pet in your garden, as long as you are the owner of the property and that your pet doesn’t carry any diseases that could affect human health. Though still rare, pet cemeteries are popping up here and there. Owners can select and individualise their pet’s very own unique casket.
In most cases, owners prefer to collect their pet’s ashes. These are usually spread in significant places or kept in an urn in the house. In more limited cases, owners have their pet’s ashes placed inside jewelry or house decor. Some even have the ashes mixed to ink, which is then used to tattoo their bodies. In any case, the relationship with the pet continues after their life ends. 

Holding on to the good memories

According to our survey, 85% of owners kept a keepsake of their pet after they passed away. In 80% of cases, this was a picture, in 60% of cases, they were toys or accessories such as a lead or collar. In 31% of cases, owners kept a bit of their pet’s fur, and in 23% of cases, they kept a paw print. 

According to experts, whether or not you should hold on to keepsakes is really up to you. However, they advise that in the first few weeks, you put your keepsakes away in a cupboard until you decide what you want to do with them. Indeed, in the first few days, you might want to get rid of everything to avoid painful memories, but you may come to regret this later in the future. 

When you feel ready, certain rituals involving your keepsakes may help you turn the page: making a scrapbook, writing about your experience, composing a memory box, and framing pictures, for example. While this can be emotionally taxing, it is also a way of looking back at all the special moments you and your pet shared.

Cat angel waiting in heaven
An angel in heaven ©Shutterstock

Welcoming a new pet

As our survey indicates, 65% of owners decided to take in a new pet after losing their previous one. In 50% of cases, this was less than 6 months after their previous pet had passed. Experts advise that owners wait at least 2 to 3 months before getting a new pet, so as to avoid adopting one out of sheer grief instead of genuine intent.

In about a third of cases though, owners never take in a pet again: they feel like it would be betraying their pet’s memory, or simply that they could never go through the pain of grief again. 

For the rest however, a void needs to be filled. And rightly so. Pets enable us to improve our mental health: they make us laugh, lower our stress levels, and help us get out of the house. It would be a shame to deny ourselves those benefits on account of a pet that is gone. After all, much like the special people in our lives, pets only want our happiness. Remember, if you are happy, so are they. Grief may come again, but grief is a small price to pay for love. 

Don’t stay silent

The biggest piece of advice that all experts agree on is that bereaved owners shouldn’t remain silent. The world is starting to normalise pet grief, and minds are beginning to open. 

For instance, pet condolence cards now exist, as do pet obituary pages. Shelters are starting to organise group or one-on-one counselling services for owners who have experienced the loss of a pet. Online forums, websites, and Facebook groups and pages have been created so owners can share and exchange their ordeals with others who are also grieving. Helplines now exist for pet owners wishing to call or email specialists who have gone through the same thing, and know how to listen. 

Though leave is not yet permitted for people who have just lost a pet, the discussion has begun. According to our survey, 1 out of 2 people think that taking some time off after the loss of a pet is necessary. 

However you choose to handle your grief, do not feel alone. Thousands of people have felt what you are feeling, and solutions are out there.

If you would like to get in touch with a support service, check out our recommendations below: