When Your Pet Dies

by John Kennedy Saynor

One of life’s great treasures is the relationship that human beings develop with their pets. Not everyone has this opportunity; indeed it isn’t something everyone wants. But for those who do, pets become our companions, and often substitute children. A family pet may be a dog, cat, hamster, horse, donkey, bird, fish or any other creature with whom we develop a special relationship.

Many of our pets live with us in our homes. They may sleep with us. They are constantly at our side on shopping trips, vacations or daily walks. They seem to understand us. They accept us the way we are and even keep secrets! We learn to know if they are not feeling well. We understand when they are reminding us that it is time to eat or time for their daily walk!

When a family pet dies, the experience of grief is similar to mourning the death of a person we have loved. It is a significant loss that should not be ignored and we do well to pay attention to this loss before beginning to move on with our lives.

What you may experience.

Sadness: The relationship you had with your pet was unique and you may be surprised initially that you are overcome with sadness. Since we cannot always be in control of our pets, often they die tragically and this increases our sadness.

Loneliness:  You will miss the friendly greeting when you come home, their presence around the house, the daily routine of having them with you.  While many pet lovers will experience a deep loneliness, those who live alone may find the loneliness overwhelming.

Guilt:  If the death was tragic, you may feel responsible for your pet’s death and guilty for letting it happen. Perhaps you didn’t recognize that your pet was sick and feel guilty for not receiving help earlier.

One unique source of grief pet owners experience is around the issue of euthanizing our pets. For the most part, when humans are sick and dying we let life run its course.  With our pets, we are often left with the responsibility of making the decision that enough is enough.  This is often made with the advice of our veterinarian who will help us make the right decision.  No matter how carefully you made that decision, you may experience a certain amount of guilt.

Anger:  There are many reasons why you may be angry.  You may be angry with your veterinarian for not being able to keep your pet alive, the driver of the car who killed your pet, or the illness that ended your pet’s life.  Depending on the circumstances of your life, you may feel this is one more loss among many that you are experiencing.  Perhaps you have had a spouse, parent, sibling or a child die recently. You may be angry that life is dealing you this additional blow.

Unsupported in your grief:  People who do not have pets often don’t understand the significance of the death of a pet. They may even tell you that you are over- reacting. You may be angry with these people for not giving you the support you need.

As I have already said, the emotions following the death of a pet are similar to those we experience when someone we love dies. The journey through grief is also similar. The following will give you some ideas for dealing with your grief.

Helping Yourself Recover

Give yourself permission to grieve. Be patient with yourself and the process.  Don’t let others tell you how you should be feeling and don’t let those who don’t understand tell you to “get over it!” Your grief is your grief and it is a normal and healthy part of living to mourn the loss of someone or something important in your life.  If you feel like crying, then cry. Take time to feel your pain and express it.

Create an appropriate way to memorialize your pet.   This will, of course, be determined by where you live. Your pet may be cremated and then ashes buried in a garden or scattered in your pet’s favourite place.   It may be that your pet’s body can be buried on the property where you live. You may want to create some sort of ritual for the time of the burial.   A rock, a tree or bench may mark the place where your pet is buried. There are pet cemeteries in some communities and your veterinarian or local funeral director will be able to give you that information.

Find someone with whom you can talk. Don’t isolate yourself from others. You need their support and comfort. Your friends who have pets will understand.   Don’t try to be “brave” with other family members. Remember that they are also grieving the death of this significant family member. You may find it helpful to ask your veterinarian or local funeral director for referral to a bereavement counsellor or pet loss support group.

Involve the children in the family. The death of a family pet is often a “teaching moment” for the children. It gives adults an opportunity to teach children that for “everything under the sun…there is a time to be born and a time to die.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1)  Be honest with children. You may have the opportunity to prepare them for the death, but above all, be honest.  When the death occurs, tell the children the pet has died.  Don’t tell them the pet has “gone away” or worse still, that the pet is “missing”.  When we involve children, we do them a great favour, since we will be preparing them for the inevitable death of a loved person in the family.

A pet as small as a goldfish may be the first opportunity a child has to learn about caring for another living creature. When the fish dies, it may be a significant loss for the child.  Encourage the child to cry, to express feelings and to ask the inevitable questions about death. Children often have insights adults are missing and may have the perfect idea for what to do to memorialize the pet.

It is usually not a good idea to rush into getting a replacement for this pet.  Pets, like people, are individuals and can’t be replaced. It isn’t helpful to try to get an exact replica of the one who has died.  It will take time for you to adjust to the fact that this beloved pet has died. You may take time to dispose of your pet’s belongings.   When you feel ready, remove your pet’s feeding dishes and bed. You may decide to keep items like a tag or collar. Do what you feel like, when you feel like it.   When this transition has taken place you may begin to think about getting a new pet.   But you will never replace the one who has just died.

With every death or significant loss it is important to take time to grieve.  It is, however, equally important to begin the process of moving on with life.   The memories of this pet will be with you for the rest of your life.  Let the memories comfort you.  Let your relationship with this pet be the foundation upon which you will build a relationship with a new pet if you decide to bring another one into your life.  When you are ready, a new relationship can be developed and a new life created with another pet with whom you can hopefully share the next few years of your life.

© John Kennedy Saynor. Used with permission.

Copies of this brochure are available at The Ross Funeral Chapel in Port Hope, Ontario. For further information about how to access this brochure as well as others in the series, please call Jamieson Ross at 905-885-4931 or email him at rfc@eagle.ca.