How to cope with losing a pet during the pandemic

    Losing a beloved pet is painful and, as we live through this COVID-19 pandemic, you may find losing a pet even more painful than before. In this blog post, I will explain why and how to cope during this challenging time.

    Why is losing a pet during the pandemic so hard?

    Pet loss can, for some, be a type of disenfranchised grief. This means that it’s not a loss that is openly or officially recognised (Doka, 1999). When the pain of the loss isn’t recognised, the supports which might traditionally be available when a human dies, might not necessarily be there, when a beloved pet dies. For example, we as a society, typically don’t have formal rituals like memorials or funerals for pets to mourn the loss, and not all employers provide bereavement leave for pet loss. Sometimes the loss can be disenfranchised by well-meaning friends, neighbours or family. For example, some grieving pet owners may hear things like “it was just a cat”, or “when will you get another one”. And, sometimes, pet owners can disenfranchise their own grief feelings by telling themselves “I should suck it up” or “I must be crazy for being so upset about this”.

    Given that pet loss was disenfranchised before the pandemic when we situate pet loss during times when people are experiencing so many other losses due to the global health, economic and social crisis, pet owners may feel their grief is even more disenfranchised.

    Further, since many of us affected by the COVID-19 pandemic are spending more time at home, we may have found ourselves living even more closely with our beloved companion. They may be giving us a reason to get up in the morning and providing us with a routine that may otherwise be missing. When they are gone their absence, therefore, may be even more noticeable. Traditional coping strategies for some owners like going out for dinner with a friend or going to the gym may also not be available and being at home more often can make the reality that they are gone painfully obvious. Last, those in lockdown may be separated from friends and family and social distancing measures mean the simple comfort of a hug can’t occur.

    How to cope 

    For those who are experiencing the loss of a pet during this time, may I first extend my sincere condolences. It may feel intense and overwhelming right now and although I have provided some reasons why this loss may be even more difficult and intense right now, I’m sure I have missed many more reasons. While there are no words I can provide to take the pain away and trust me I wish there were, please know that there is support and there is hope. This is truly a very difficult time and yet with time and support, most people do recover. Here are some ways to cope.

    Acknowledge the loss

    While it is true that there are many sad and tragic happenings across the globe, your loss is still significant and valid. Grief is a very natural and normal response to loss and in many ways, the pain of grief is a reflection of just how special your companion was to you. Grief is not linear and it can come in waves. You may feel a range of emotions in response to the loss, including anger, guilt, sadness, love, and relief, especially if your beloved companion experienced a long and chronic illness.

    In order to adapt to loss, we must find ways to acknowledge and express our grief. Minimising the loss and not giving yourself permission to grieve can only prolong the process.

    Accepting a loss can be difficult and it can take time. Memorials and other ways to acknowledge the loss can provide comfort, an opportunity to say farewell and pay tribute. During these times you may wish to consider a memorial via Zoom or Facetime. Others find that putting together a montage of favourite photos, or keeping ashes in a keepsake like a necklace or urn in a nice spot in the house can help.

    Express your thoughts and feelings about the loss

    Expressing thoughts and feelings about the loss can help to make sense of the experience. Talk to supportive friends, family, and colleagues about what you’re going through. If you’re not comfortable talking about it, you can write your thoughts down using a journal, letter, or poem.

    Take care of yourself

    It’s important to remember to take care of yourself during this time. Remember to engage in regular exercise, maintain a healthy sleep routine, and eat a balanced diet.

    When to seek further support

    If you feel like your grief is intense and overwhelming, it may be helpful to speak to a counsellor, psychologist, or other health professional.

    Sometimes talking with a professional who understands the human-animal bond and specialises in animal bereavement can be helpful. For inquiries email: virohlf@gmail.com

    If you require crisis counselling, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 (Australian residents only). For those living outside of Australia, please locate your local crisis support line.

    References

    Doka, K. J. (1999). Disenfranchised grief. Bereavement care18(3), 37-39.

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