Coping with Grief and Loss when an Animal Dies.
27th September 2017
My beautiful Holly passed away ten years ago on the 29th January 2007. I last saw her at 4:00 pm in the afternoon and when I called her in for dinner she never came. We lived on acreage at the time and searched for her until the early hours of the evening. It was not until the morning, that we found her lifeless body in a paddock. I can still see her face and the way her fur had flattened on the side of her face which touched the ground. I felt deep sadness yet disbelief and physically sick.
Thoughts kept running through my head. If only I had called her in earlier, would she be alive? What happened? Did I walk straight past her in the dark last night and not see her? Was she in pain?
I had just met a man a week earlier and we were supposed to go out on our second date that evening. Instead, he drove an hour and a half up to my place with a soft toy, a sympathy card and hug. It was this acknowledgment and tenderness that made me realise ‘he gets it’. Ten years later, we are married and have our son and of course a beautiful dog called Velvet.
Many people say that the bond with an animal is akin to a family member and this is why, when we lose an animal, it hurts so much.
I think the bond we share with an animal is something much more unique.
- Love from an animal is unconditional in its purest form. They do not care that you haven’t done your hair and that you’re wearing tracksuit pants.
- Animals do not judge. They are not thinking ‘hmmm you really shouldn’t eat that second donut, should you…. Well maybe they are so they can eat it but you get my drift.
- Animals give without expectation. They will happily give you affection without expecting you to then let them use your iPad.
- Animals lower stress levels. Just patting a dog or a cat can significantly lower stress hormones like cortisol and increase feel-good hormones like oxytocin and serotonin.
Holly and I shared a special bond. She had quite a few health problems in her time but it never stopped her from enjoying her life. She made me laugh. She was loyal, gentle and kind.
People may tell you that time heals all wounds and while this is true, in that grief does have a forward trajectory, it also takes work. While the process of grief is unique, oscillating and certainly not linear, there are four tasks that people generally go through when they process a loss (Worden, 2008).
Task 1: Accept the loss
We need to face the reality that the animal is dead and that they are not coming back. Each one of us must accept the loss. Some days may be easier to accept this reality than others. Denying the loss and the significance of the loss may indicate that there is difficulty accomplishing this task. For example, keeping the dog’s bed ready for use or food in the bowl or denying that he/she will be missed may be indicators of difficulty here.
Task 2: Process the pain of loss
Grief can be felt psychologically and physically. It’s important that we give ourselves permission to experience all reactions to grief. Drugs, alcohol or anything that allows one to avoid the pain can only extend the grieving period. Minimising grief by saying “shouldn’t you be over it by now?” or not recognising the significance of a relationship by saying things like, “‘it was only a dog”, can lead to people being stuck at this task. Be open and accept your feelings and reactions at this time.
Common emotional reactions to grief include:
Common physical reactions include:
- Tightness in the chest
- Difficulty swallowing
- Shortness of breath
- Dry mouth
- Nausea or hollowness in the stomach
Task 3: Adjusting to a world without the loved one
When an animal dies we experience the primary loss, and we also experience secondary losses. Our routine is lost. We have close contact with our companion animals. This contact is day to day and built into our routines. We are no longer woken up with four legs jumping on the bed. We no longer feed our dog or cat bits of our toast in the morning or walk our dog after work in the afternoon. In addition to the loss of routine, there are other losses as well. For example, losing a dog can mean you also lose contact with the veterinary staff and with fellow dog walkers. If being a dog lover is part of your identity then this loss can also mean that you lose part of your identity. All these losses mean that we must adjust to our new surroundings and create a new identity for ourselves.
Task 4: Find an enduring connection with the deceased
We never truly lose our animals. They may be gone physically but we don’t have to let them go entirely. They are always a part of us; in our memories. The task here is to find ways to continue our bond with the animal we lost and open ourselves up to the possibility of being able to connect with someone else or another animal. If people say that they will never love another animal again or stop enjoying life after the death of an animal then it may be a sign of getting a little stuck in this task. My dog Holly may be gone but she has taught me to smile and be kind and, in this way, I can honour her memory.
Tips for coping with grief and loss
- Be gentle with yourself and rest when you need to.
- Do not put a timeline on grief. It may take months or it may take years
- Memorials, funerals or other rituals may be useful in acknowledging the loss
- Making sense of the loss is important so talking or writing about it can be useful ways of finding meaning
- Reach out and get support when your feelings are persistent and distressing
How to support a friend who is grieving
Listen without judgment
The best thing you can do is to be there and listen without judgment. Your friend may need someone to tell and retell their story to so that they can make sense of what happened.
When people are grieving, particularly in the early stages of grief, they may be tired and not be able to think clearly. You could offer practical support. For example, picking up groceries, or walking and feeding other animals. If you’re not sure what they need, then ask “what can I do to help at this time?”
Share a memory
Sharing a memory of the animal that has passed away can bring comfort. You could also ask your friend to share memory too.
Sometimes it can be difficult to know what to say to someone who has lost an animal. It can be helpful to ask open questions like “what’s it been like for you now that Oscar is gone”. Refrain from minimising the loss by saying “at least he’s not in pain” or “they had a good life”. It’s completely fine if this is how your friend processes the loss but not your place to tell them how they should be thinking about it. Further, although these sentiments are well-meaning, they can lead to the other person feeling like they do not have permission to grieve. It’s also OK to be honest, and if you don’t know what to say, then say that too.
Encourage professional support
If you’re concerned for your friend’s wellbeing because grief feelings are prolonged and intense and affecting areas of his or her life, then it may be useful to encourage them to seek professional help. If they are reluctant, you could offer to make a phone call on their behalf or accompany them to an appointment.
Professional resources and support
- Lort Smith offer memorial services and access to companion animal support groups which are run in partnership with The Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement
- Pets and people is on online resource containing articles, links to books and pet loss counsellors.
- I also offer private consultations in person in Victoria, Australia and via Skype, Zoom or phone.
Holly my dear will be missed, and although I thought this loss would devastate me, I’m here to say it didn’t. She taught me to be kind and smile and to know a good man when I see one.
Worden, W. J. (2008). Grief counseling and grief therapy: A handbook for the mental health practitioner (4th dd). New York: Springer Publishing Company.