The Loss of an Animal
Grief is a normal, natural process of adjusting to the loss of a loved one. We cannot go through life without being touched by grief. Contrary to popular belief, grief does not unfold in clean, linear stages, nor does it have a timeline.
Many people remark that they are surprised by the intensity of grief that follows the death of an animal. The loss of an animal is often just as difficult, if not more so, than losing a human family member because our relationships with our animals are remarkably intimate and mutually supportive – they love us ‘no strings attached,’ hold our secrets, and accept us as we are. When daily routines are centered around relationships with our animal/s, their deaths can also be profoundly disruptive to our sense of home, our sense of safety, our sense of purpose, and our sense of identity.
It is important to remember that grief is a full body experience that includes physical, emotional, spiritual, cognitive, and social manifestations. These include:
- aches, pains, and pressure (including chest tightness and headaches)
- dehydration (loss of water through tears)
- nausea and loss of hunger
- anger at Higher Power
- bargaining with Higher Power
- questioning faith
- searching for meaning
- questioning what happens after death (“is my animal okay?”, “where is my animal now?”, “do animals have souls?”)
- ruminating on aspects of animal’s illness and death
- preoccupation with elements of the dying process
- rigidity/lack of flexibility (loss of ability to see the ‘gray area’)
- isolating from friends, social circles, and loved ones
- using social events or work to avoid going home
- feeling like you no longer fit in with your animal friends
- avoiding social situations where people might ask about your animal
What can I do to help myself heal?
After a loss, it is important to tend to your broken heart, and in whatever way that feels safe to you, allow yourself to feel the pain of the loss. Most people find comfort in maintaining daily routines and even creating daily rituals to honor their animal’s memory. When humans die, the process of mourning includes social acknowledgment of the death through obituaries, funerals, and public memorials. Doing the same for a loved animal honors their life while also giving others a chance to support you. Allow yourself a small break from the sadness every day – find a source of light amongst the dark. And find a witness who can hear your stories and feelings without judgment. Most of all, grievers want to know they are normal, that their feelings are valid, and that they are not alone.
When will I get over this?
It is common for people to want to feel better and “be done with the pain.” On the other hand, it is also normal for grievers to fear feeling better because that might mean letting go of -- or betraying -- a loved one. Keep in mind that grief is not something we get over, but something we move through. When we lose someone whose presence changes us (often for the better), we can’t help but be changed, too, by their death. The process of coming to terms with a death can take a long time, but you will eventually find your way to a place where the pain of that beloved’s absence is less of a focus than the positive, loving memories that come to mind when you remember them.
Would talking to someone help?
If you are significantly preoccupied with questions or guilt about your animal’s illness and/or death, have witnessed the acute injury or traumatic death of your animal, or are feeling “stuck” in any aspect of your grief, it might be useful to connect with a professional who can provide extra support. Client Counseling Services offers short-term grief counseling for VHC clients at no charge.
The death of an animal is often a child’s first experience with the cycle of life. It is also a valuable opportunity to teach children that death is natural and universal. Parents often want to protect their children from the painful realities of the world – death included. While this is understandable, many parents are often surprised with how matter-of-fact children are about death and dying – especially when adults explain death in honest and simple terms.
In general, children of all ages need simple, honest information about what death means and what death looks like. When discussing euthanasia and death, it is best to use concrete words and simple explanations – and whenever possible, to avoid the use of jargon (such as “putting Fluffy to sleep”) that can be easily misunderstood. Young children may need to know that bodies stop working when they die (bodies can no longer hear, feel, see, or taste). Older children may need to know what condition led the body to stop working and why that condition could not be cured by a veterinarian. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Offer to answer any question your child may have – even the silly, scary, or complicated ones. These questions may pop up at any point before or after the death of a loved animal. Be as open as possible about the details your child needs to know, as those details may help them to make sense out of what has happened. There are many books geared toward answering kids’ nitty-gritty questions about death (such as “what is cremation?” or “what happens after a body is buried?”). For resource recommendations and assistance, please contact Client Counseling Services at (919) 513-3901.
- When possible, provide children with an age-appropriate way to say goodbye to their animal. If your family is preparing for the death of an animal, either through euthanasia or an unassisted death, it is appropriate to ask your child how he/she wants to say goodbye to their animal. Writing a goodbye letter, drawing a picture to bury or cremate with the remains, or having a celebration before death (a “goodbye party” with treats and storytelling) gives children a chance to achieve closure. It can also be helpful to provide children with an opportunity to be involved in memorialization rituals.
- Listen without judgment and support the need to grieve. Children may have any number of responses to loss, including tearfulness, sleep disturbance, anxiousness, bedwetting, and impaired concentration at school. These responses are normal and often temporary. Invite your child to talk about their feelings and reassure them that these feelings are okay. Children with less developed verbal skills often benefit from having non-verbal opportunities to process grief. Crafting scrap books or memory boxes, or creating a collage of mementos, can give form to important feelings.
- Avoid re-storying a death. It can be tempting to create an alternative story to why an animal is no longer present (e.g. “he went to live on a farm.”) Surprisingly, though, children often find out about an animal’s death – sometimes many years after the death has occurred. Children are better equipped to understand and cope with loss over the course of their lifetime if death is explained in a clear, sensitive, and timely manner.
- Find comfort in routines and play. All creatures, whether human or animal, find comfort in the daily routines that give our days form and focus. Maintaining the normal daily schedule for meals, bedtime, and play time is an important part of coping with a life-changing loss. Laughter – or taking a break from the sadness – also serves as a healing salve for hurting hearts.
- Make space for remembering. Encourage children to share favorite stories about their animal and to remember the happiest times with that animal. Those memories are part of the natural healing process and can provide great comfort months, and even years, after an animal’s death.