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An Unexpected Grief...Death of a Pet
I never expected the death of my dog Nugget to have such a profound effect on me. I remember every detail of that week, from how the vet’s voice cracked when he told us the cancer was inoperable, to trying to make her last days as comfortable as possible, to the first morning when I woke up and didn’t hear her nails clicking across the wood floors. I knew I was going to miss Nugget terribly, but I wasn’t prepared for the impact of the grief that followed.
Our pets are our constant companions. They are the maintainers of ritual, the providers of unconditional love, and the recipients of our care and devotion. Each morning at 6am, my cat wakes me up by walking across my pillow. Each evening after dinner, Nugget would sit by the door and wait for our nighttime stroll around the neighborhood. Saturdays meant a trip to the dog park.
It wasn’t until Nugget’s death that I realized many of my social interactions centered around my dog. I had even made several new friends at the dog park, and I looked forward to seeing them every week. On the street where I lived, I think more neighbors knew my dog’s name than knew mine. I found myself wondering what would happen to those friendships. I couldn’t just show up at the dog park alone.
The bond between humans and animals is profound, and the loss of a pet can be as significant as the death of a friend or family member. Yet, we often feel ashamed or embarrassed at the level of pain we feel over the death of our pets. We shouldn’t. It is important acknowledge and accept the intense grief and the life changes that the death of a pet can bring. Just like when a loved one dies, experiencing your grief, sharing feelings with others, and honoring your loss are important steps towards healing.
Honoring Your Pet
When a beloved pet dies, there are many ways to honor and mark the significance of the loss. You may be able to choose what to do with your pet’s remains. Many areas have pet cemeteries with gravesite and other markers to provide a sense of dignity and formality to your loss. Cremation may be another option, which allows for you to scatter ashes in a favorite spot, or to keep them with you.
Even without remains, there are ways to memorialize your pet. Writing down favorite memories, setting up a memorial social media account, holding a special service, making a donation to an organization, or planting a tree are all ways to pay tribute to your loss. You may choose to do these remembrances alone, or to invite friends in family. When Nugget died, it wasn’t until I invited people to a service in my backyard that I realized I wasn’t the only person who missed her. I felt less alone knowing that others were grieving too.
Helping Yourself and Your Family
Sometimes, the grief that accompanies the death of a pet is complicated by other factors. Feelings of guilt, memories of a previous loss, and social isolation can compound grief. It is important to have someone you can connect to and be honest with about your feelings. Some people find it helpful to connect with groups specifically for people who have lost a pet. The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement and the Pet Loss Grief Support are two helpful online resources.
Often, the death of a family pet is the first experience children have with death. Children need help understanding and processing their feelings, and look to adults in their lives for guidance. While it may feel easier to protect children with stories or white lies, it is healthier to be honest and forthcoming. Involving children in rituals and allowing them to see your own sadness helps them learn how to normalize and manage their own feelings.
Local pet loss support:
Helping children deal with loss of a family pet: