Allow yourself time to grieve a beloved companion animal

Living with a companion animal can be one of the greatest joys in life. We share our days and nights with them, love them, care for them and consider them members of our family. Losing them, though, can be one of life’s great sorrows.

Because most household companion animals have much shorter life spans than humans do, chances are we’re going to need to say goodbye. For some people, grief is initially intense and then gets easier, while others even 20 years later are still having trouble getting over a loss. It is unhelpful to tell yourself (or someone else), “Oh, it’s just a cat,” or “You can get another dog,” or to underestimate how painful losing a pet can be. When it comes to grieving, there is no “normal.” Allow your grief to unfold without judging yourself.

Owners often feel uncertain about how to handle the details and timing of an animal’s passing and the emotions that go along with it. There can be a lot of questions: Is the animal suffering? What kind of quality of life is present? What should I do?

Even though a caring veterinarian can offer invaluable guidance in end-of-life decisionmaking, the ultimate decision lies on your shoulders, and that’s a heavy load. Feeling guilty about euthanizing too soon — or waiting too long — can leave emotional scars and make the grieving process more complicated. It’s important to remember that there is no “perfect” time.

When it comes to coping with the loss, many pet owners find comfort in tangible reminders of their animal’s life. A framed pawprint or a shadowbox with your pet’s collar and favorite toy can bring back good memories later. A burial (be sure to check your local laws) or memorial service is often a helpful ritual, especially if family members tell funny or sweet stories about the animal or say a few words about what the animal meant to them. However, while reminders may be helpful for many, others may find it easier without them, and that’s OK.

Parents often wonder how to help their children with the loss. Specific recommendations vary among different mental health professionals and must be tailored to the needs of an individual child, but the consensus is that in most cases parents should be open with children about what is happening. Kids are smart and resilient and know more about what’s going on than we sometimes think they do, and it’s a valuable life experience for them to be included as much as possible.

The main thing parents can do is to be present for their children and allow them to process the loss in their own way while being available for questions and for comfort. There are some excellent books to help with this. There are picture and story books that can be shared directly with children as well as those written for parents that give advice about how to help their kids emotionally during this difficult time.

“When it comes to grieving there is no “normal.”

It’s also beneficial for parents to encourage children to find their own personal way to

commemorate their pet’s life. When our family lost our sweet dog Odysseus, my daughter spent several hours putting together a movie about him using the videos we had made throughout his life. This creative project was one of the things that helped her work through her emotions, and it also helped her focus on the good times we’d had with him and what a gift he was to our family.

Even other animals in the home can grieve the loss of their companion. Sometimes they will be listless, search around the house for the missing friend or only eat out of their friend’s bowl. If there are several animals in the home, the disappearance of one pet can change the social dynamics. Just as with humans, animals will grieve in their own way.

Give yourself and others plenty of time and kindness after the loss of a beloved animal companion. Remember every person and every animal is unique, and so is every loss. Everyone will experience and process an animal’s death differently. However you grieve, above all be gentle with yourself and others.

Jessica Pierce, PhD, is a bioethicist and affiliate faculty member at the University of Colorado Center for Bioethics and Humanities. She is a specialist in animal ethics and welfare and is the author of several books including The Last Walk: Reflections on Our Pets at the Ends of Their Lives and Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets.