Coping with Pet Grief
By Dr Sabina Brennan, Psychologist, Neuroscientist and Dog Lover
There can be a lack of validation and support around pet grief and a genuine lack of understanding around the intensity of the loss. Pet grief is very real, your heart is breaking, but there are often no mourning rituals where you can share your pain with others to help you through those first few days. Research suggests that people move through the same stages of grief for their pets as they do for human loss and it’s very important to recognise this.
It’s not just a dog, it is a beloved member of your family. Research carried out by Dogs Trust Ireland revealed over half of dog owners felt the grief they experienced after losing their dog was similar or worse to the loss of a family member, with a further 38% stating they were surprised by how deeply they were affected. Pets are like children that never grow up, they always require your support for their basic needs such as food, water, shelter attention and affection. Pets, like best friends, are wonderful at listening without judgement and like the best partners in the world they are always happy to see you. Their love is unconditional, they only have eyes for you, and they always want to be with you. That is a hell of a lot of love to lose in one moment.
Your grief is perfectly normal and proportionate to the loss that you have experienced. You may experience loss of appetite, sleep disturbances, difficulty concentrating, as well as a number of emotional responses including sadness, guilt, anger, and numbness.
I have always had more than one dog at a time so when one has passed on it has always helped immensely to walk the other dogs in the park and meet dog walkers who would immediately ask after the missing dog – it’s a wonderful opportunity to share your loss those who also knew and loved your dog. If your dog was your only pet consider going for walks as usual, while your instinct might be to avoid doing that, doing so can be hugely cathartic as it will help immensely to talk to other dog-lovers about your loss.
Everyone grieves in their own way; you might find it helps to keep busy and go to work or you might need a few days at home to cry in private. Let the tears flow when they come, and they may come at the most inopportune times often taking you by surprise. Just remember there is no shame in pet grief, it is very real. You may find it helpful to have some sort of memorial service for your pet, perhaps inviting friends and fellow dog owners over to raise a glass in your dog’s memory. Or you may find it comforting to create some sort of lasting memorial or memento, whether that takes the form of a scrapbook or a necklace with a lock of hair is entirely up to you.
I have lived with and loved many dogs and the heart break is always incredibly painful but it has never stopped me having dogs, the love that we share in our lives together far outweigh the pain of the inevitable loss.