Written by Susanna Owens, PhD. Licensed Clinical Psychologist*
I have found fellow pet owners compassionate and supportive when I actively grieved the death of my pet. However, I also experienced a sense of self-consciousness when attempting to describe to others, the distress I experienced. I found myself asking, “Is it normal to so acutely grieve the death of my pet?” The simple answer is YES! So I would like for you, reader, to know it is normal to be bereft. It is understandable to experience significant upset and disruption in our lives. It is valid and realistic to grieve a pet.
The death of a pet can be a profound loss. Animals touch our lives deeply and in very important ways. Pets offer us companionship. They comfort us. They meet us with unconditional acceptance. Studies have shown humans often respond to the death of a pet similarly to the death of other humans (Carmack, 2003; Field, Orsini, Gavish & Packman, 2009; Quackenbush, 1985).
Many people report comfort in developing a Continuing Bond with their deceased pet (Carmack & Packman, 2011). Continuing bonds are ways humans maintain a modified and ongoing relationship with the deceased. Examples are recalling fond memories, touching an item (such as collar), or revisiting shared places. These expressions can help us hold onto an aspect of our pet as we come to terms with the loss. Other ways people experience continuing bonds are dreams, having a sense of experiencing the presence of the pet, or engaging in rituals.
If you are currently grieving:
- Give yourself permission to take time to recover. Grief takes time to work through. It is a process. Feelings evolve and change.
- Make plans and develop strategies to draw upon when you are upset.
- Do what is comforting to you. Experiment to find 1-2 things that generally help you cope.4
- There are numerous self-help resources online and at your library or bookstore. One example is Wolfelt, A. D. (2004). When your pet dies: A guide to mourning, remembering and healing. Ft. Collins: Companion Press.
Carmack, B. J. (2003). Grieving the death of a pet. Minneapolis: Augsburg.
Carmack, B.J., & Packman, W. (2011). Pet Loss: The Interface of Continuing Bonds Research and Practice. In R. A. Neimeyer, Harris, DL, Winokuer, HR, & Thornton, G. F. (eds) Brief and Bereavement in Contemporary Society: Bridging Research and Practice. PP 273-284. Routledge: New York.
Field, N. P., Orsini, L., Gavish, R., & Packman, W. (2009). Role of attachment in response to pet loss. Death Studies, 33(4) 332-355.
Quackenbush, J. E. (1985). The death of a pet: how it can affect owners. The Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice, 15, 395-402.
* Dr. Owens is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in private practice. Her practice, The Beachwood Center, is located in Williamsburg, VA.