When the Botha family lost their beloved schnauzer Joey, they were devastated. He had grown old and also suffered a variety of debilitating illnesses. Although the family had agreed that they had done the right thing at the right time, their decision to euthanize him hit each member of the family hard. It also affected them in very different ways because the truth of the matter is, when grieving the loss of a pet, there really is no right way to grieve.
A Special Bond
The sad truth is that no pet lives forever. The average lifespan for all breeds of dogs is just over 11 years (larger breeds may die younger than smaller breeds), and for house cats, the average lifespan is just over 15 years. We understand that life with a pet inevitably comes with loss but hope that this is some time in the distant future. The benefits we get from our four-legged companions today make the time we spend together so wonderful..
Numerous studies have shown that people get many emotional benefits from pets including companionship, laughter, comfort, feeling loved, something to love, responsibility, feeling needed, safety and exercise. Pet owners also tend to live longer than non-pet owners and report fewer visits to doctors, psychiatrists and therapists.
It’s often hard to know what to do when your pet dies. The death of a pet can be just as emotional as the death of any other family member.
Saying Goodbye to a Pet
The Botha family adopted Joey when he was a puppy and, for most of his life, he was energetic, curious, protective and silly. After Joey passed away, Mrs. Botha found the house intolerably quiet and Mr. Botha had trouble admitting he was sad. This period was hard for them to get through, and they are not the only ones who experience such difficulties.
There can be a stigma associated with grieving the loss of a pet. Outsiders who have never experienced this loss may tell you to “just get another pet,” failing to comprehend the depth of your grief. Experts, however, will tell you that you are, in fact, mourning the loss of a family member.
During this time, it’s important to give yourself permission to grieve. The house may seem quiet and you may feel uncomfortable, but all of this is normal. Experts recommend keeping a journal, talking to a counselor or a friend who understands your loss.
If your pet was euthanized, as was the case for the Botha family, try not to fixate on your pet’s last moments. Try instead to remember the good times – the long walks, games of fetch or cuddles on the couch. And forgive yourself if you start to feel guilty. Remember that you did everything you could for your beloved pet.
If you have children, especially if this is their first experience of bereavement, experts recommend that you talk openly with them. If they don’t ask questions, try to find out how they’re feeling and engage them through play and art. And if necessary, you may wish to consult a counselor for help.
Coping with the Loss of a Pet
After Joey died, the Botha family sent a note to their friends to let them know. The kids created a scrapbook of his life and they held a memorial service for him. All these activities helped the family to say goodbye, and there are many other things you can do to memorialize your pet as well. You should just do what feels right for you.
Dealing with the loss of a pet is a deeply personal experience, but there are things you can do to make mourning a little easier.
- Don’t let anyone tell you how to feel. Whatever you’re feeling about the loss of your pet is allowed. If you’re angry or you want to cry – or not cry – it’s alright. And it’s just as acceptable if you feel like laughing and find moments of joy. You shouldn’t let anyone tell you to “get over it” or “move on.”
- Find ways to grieve. A funeral or a memorial can help you and your family members to grieve openly.
- Reach out. Talk to friends, family members, a counselor or a clergy member. If none of them can help you, find someone who can. There are many online support groups and message boards specifically for pet loss.
- Create a memory. You can celebrate the life of your beloved pet by planting a tree or creating a scrapbook or doing any other personal thing that has meaning for you and your family.
- Care for yourself. Losing a pet is stressful and can deplete your energy and emotional reserves. It’s important to remember to eat a healthy diet and get plenty of sleep. Regular exercise will also help release endorphins, which may help to boost your mood.
- Keep up routines. Especially if you have other pets, it’s important to maintain your daily routine and even increase playtimes. Other pets also experience loss when a pet dies. They also sense your moods and can become distressed by your sorrow.
While you may never stop missing that special presence in your life, you can find the right ways to grieve and cherish the love your animal companion brought to your life.