What losing my pet showed me about the power of grief

March 12, 2020

One of the most difficult things we can go through is the loss of someone we love. But what if that someone is a beloved family pet? The grief is still difficult, but it can also be different and confusing — and, unfortunately, taken less seriously by those around us. Those are just some of the things that I experienced when I recently lost my 14-year-old cat, Captain Jack Sparrow, due to chronic kidney disease. 

Jack was my very first fur baby as an adult. He came into my life as a kitten, a month into living in my first apartment when I was just 20 years old. In a lot of ways, we grew up together; he was there through job changes, new apartments, various terrible boyfriends and meeting my now-husband four years ago. Then, I lost my beloved Jack right before my first baby shower, which made the grief I felt even more complicated. 

Whether you loved your cat or dog or bunny or bird for a decade or just a couple of months, the bonds that we form with our pets are special in many ways. In fact, there are actual physical health benefits that come with having a pet, which include decreased blood pressure and cholesterol and increased opportunities for exercise and outdoor activities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There are numerous mental health benefits, too, such as decreased feelings of loneliness and increased opportunities for socialization. Indeed, having a pet is good for you. But that’s not the only reason why it can be so heartbreaking to lose a beloved family pet. 

Why grieving a pet hurts so much

The intense grief after losing a pet may catch some of us by surprise. However, there are rational reasons why the pain hits so hard. 

“When a family pet dies, it can be impactful in many ways,” says Elizabeth Hinkle, licensed marriage and family therapist and Talkspace therapist. “Suddenly, your constant companion, who has provided you with unconditional love and support, is no longer around. This is a very difficult and unique experience.” 

Pets are not just furry receptacles for our love, either. For many pet owners, the relationship is two-fold and emotionally beneficial in terms of both giving and receiving.

“Our pets show us true unconditional love and give us pure joy,” says Cheryl Kasper, a licensed clinical social worker and clinical psychotherapist, who specializes in trauma and anxiety. “Sometimes a pet can show us more love than the people in our lives.”

What grieving a pet feels like

Often, grieving a family pet isn’t any different than grieving a family member, but sometimes it can hurt even more. When my cat Jack died, the grief was more intense than when a few distant family members passed away years prior. But that’s normal, according to Kasper: “For many people, losing a pet can be just as devastating as losing a family member or close friend.”

When Jack passed away after taking a very sudden turn for the worse, I didn’t know how to feel. It happened so suddenly. On Monday, he seemed to be his usual cuddle-loving self, but by Thursday morning, he was gone. I was in shock for a long time, feeling numb and as if this hadn’t really happened. I could still picture him waking me up every morning. There were  moments that I burst into tears and wondered if there was something I could have done to save him. (The vet assured me there wasn’t.) Jack was a part of my family; in fact, for a decade, he was my family. 

“Many people care for their pets and love them more than their own family members,” Kasper says. “We feed our pets at least once a day, take them out for walks, play with them and give them mutual love and affection. Sometimes we don’t even spend that much time with our family members.”

How grieving a pet is different

Unfortunately, our human cohorts may not always understand why we’re so broken-hearted that a pet has died. Sometimes it’s a friend who’s not really an animal person and doesn’t quite “get it” or a family member who’s a bit offended that your grief is so deep. But that doesn’t make your feelings any less real. 

"If others do not take someone grieving over their pet seriously, then chances are that person has never experienced unconditional love from a pet,” says Kasper. 

And because society doesn’t always validate the emotional fallout around pet grief, it can be hard to know where to put those feelings as life continues to happen all around us. 

A few days after Jack died, I attended my own baby shower. Not only was I pregnant, hormonal and grieving Jack’s death, but I also had to put on a happy face and celebrate the birth of my upcoming first child. The weekend was an extremely complicated one and filled with what felt like a million conflicting emotions. Moreover, I was still healing from my own loss almost a year before — a miscarriage — and this made the combination of my pet grief and baby shower happiness even more difficult. 

“A person's history with loss informs their experience when a beloved family pet dies,” says Hinkle. “One type of loss can easily trigger another and this can make the grief process complicated.” 

It was complicated for me, indeed. 

Tips for grieving a family pet

1. Allow grief to be different for everyone

When it comes to how you and your family grieve for a pet, it’s important to remain open. Our experts point out these critical reminders: 

  • Allow yourself time to grieve.

  • There’s no right or wrong way to grieve.

  • Grief is different for everyone. 

  • Recognize that all emotions are valid.

  • Give yourself space to manage your feelings.

When it came to my own grief, I had to recognize that I was not the only one mourning the loss of Jack. My husband had been in his life for four years. My parents and some friends were close with him, too. Even our other fur babies — a border collie named Moose and a younger kitty named Dany — seemed to be affected. 

As much as I needed to be physically held and comforted during the first few weeks of grief, others I knew needed space to process their feelings. We all felt things differently at different times, and we needed time.

2. Communicate your grief

Regardless of how those around you feel about pet grief, communicate your experience as much as you’re able so they know what’s going on for you. 

“The most effective and impactful way to do this is to use ‘I’ statements, such as ‘I feel really sad that Max is gone and would appreciate it if you could respect how I feel even if you don’t understand it,’” says Hinkle.

Remind anyone who does not take your grief seriously that your pet was a member of the family, says Kasper, and explain that the pain you are experiencing is “very real and raw.”

Even if they don’t totally understand your feelings, it’s important to honor your own feelings about your loss. Be honest and make those feelings clear. 

3. Don’t ignore the five stages of grief 

Kasper reminds us of the classic stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Each stage may take some time and you should allow yourself as much time as you need to go through this process and to feel whatever comes up in each stage. 

For instance, during the anger stage, you may wonder why this had to happen to such a sweet pet. Or, during the bargaining stage, you may think about anything you could have done differently. For me, this was the most difficult stage, as I couldn’t help thinking, “What if I had noticed this change or that change sooner? Could I have taken him to the vet a few days before and saved his life?” 

That’s when the depression can set in. 

“Seeing your pet’s bed, crate, tank, food, toy or leash can trigger emotions,” says Kasper. “Some people tend to remove these things from the home or place them out of sight to better deal with the emotions they stir up. Other people like to leave them visible so they can be reminded of the good times they had with their pet.”

For me and my husband, we opted to keep Jack’s collar and food bowl, but we got rid of the rest after a few days. 

4. Accept that it’s OK to move on

Finally, there’s acceptance. 

“At this stage, you may even begin to think about getting another pet,” says Kasper. 

It may take a while to get here, but this is typically when you may start to think about adding a new pet to your family — and that’s OK, though it can bring on some feelings of guilt, too. But that may take more time for some families than others, especially because there is no true timeline for grief. 

“Some believe it's important to include new animals in their life right away to deal with grief,” Hinkle says. "This is a very personal decision, and there is no right or wrong about how and when to have new pets join the family. Each person needs their own amount of time. Grief is messy and complicated with a myriad of emotions and does not happen in a linear way.”

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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