Losing a pet can be a lonely and heartbreaking experience. In fact, many people are surprised and confused by how devastated they feel. Some people describe a sorrow worse than when they lost a human family member. They may swear they can still hear, see, or smell their pet even after they are gone. Many people ask, “Am I normal?”
The thing is, when it comes to losing your beloved animal, it’s normal to feel like you aren’t normal.
When a human family member dies, our loss is met with compassion. We have funerals to attend, sympathy cards to open, flowers to display and obituaries to write. Our grief is acknowledged and validated. Yet, when our pet dies, our loss is often met with silence, misunderstanding. The people around us tend to move on too quickly. This dismissed feeling of loss is what professionals refer to as disenfranchised grief. In disenfranchised grief, the significance of the loss is not validated which is often why it can feel so unbearable.
Your pet was many things to you – your “fur-kid”, your best friend, your adventurous side-kick, your rock, or even your soulmate. Your pet may have slept with you every night, joined you on road trips, greeted you at the door, and waited while you showered or cooked your dinner. Perhaps your pet helped mark milestones in your life. They may have been at your wedding, welcomed your new baby home from the hospital, or kept you company when you became an empty-nester. In some ways, they share an even more intimate connection with us than most humans in our lives.
When you lose your animal, it hurts. It hurts an impossible amount. And it hurts because it matters.
Knowing that pet loss is a disenfranchised grief means that we must work a little extra harder to support our loved ones when they experience it. Send them a card, flowers, a memorial gift, or call them to check in and talk.
If you recently said goodbye to your companion, know that your loss is worthy of the sadness you are feeling. Give yourself permission to mourn and look for opportunities to express your feelings. If you are feeling lost in your grief, consider these places to start:
- Identify your support system and reach out for support.
- Journal. If you are feeling regret or guilt, consider writing those thoughts down to express them and process them.
- Write a letter to your pet and express the things you wish you could tell them.
- Create a memorial –a piece of art, a simple craft, or a special shelf for their photo and collar. Include your children or others who loved your pet.
- Have a ceremony as a family. This may be a burial, a ceremonial scattering of your pet’s ashes, or a time to read poems or share memories.
- Attend a local support group to share your story and hear from others. Animal Emergency & Referral Center of Minnesota offers a Pet Loss Support Group every fourth Tuesday evening at 7:00 PM at their Oakdale clinic. For a list of local support groups, visit http://www.mnpets.com/resources.
- Reach out to a professional to talk about your grief. Many people find it helpful to express their feelings in a safe space, get personalized recommendations, and explore their grief more deeply.
Saying goodbye is the most difficult part of having a pet, and it might be the most painful thing you’ve ever experienced. Grief is a dynamic experience, it doesn’t just sit with us and then leave on its own. It’s something we feel, explore, work through, express and care for. Grief is the process of healing our hearts after they’ve been broken. It’s not only normal, but necessary, and it’s not something you need to face alone.
Written by Kristi Lehman, MSW, LGSW with MN Pets.