Processing Grief when an Animal Companion Passes

Given the intense bond most of us share with our animals, it’s natural to feel devastated by feelings of grief and sadness when our animal companion passes. Our animals are beloved members of our families, and when they die we feel a significant, even traumatic loss.

Grieving is a personal and highly individual experience. Some people find that grief comes in stages, where they might experience different feelings such as denial, anger, guilt, depression, and eventually acceptance and resolution. Others find that grief is more cyclical, coming in waves, or a series of highs and lows. The lows are likely to be deeper and longer at the beginning and then gradually become shorter and less intense as time goes by. Still, even years after a loss - a sight, a sound, or a special anniversary can spark memories that trigger a strong sense of grief, as we can see here with Deborah and Max.

One aspect that can make grieving the loss of an animal companion so difficult is the fact that the loss of an animal is not always appreciated or understood by everyone. Friends and family might ask “What’s the big deal? It’s just a pet.” They may not understand because they don’t have an animal companion of their own, and they are unable to appreciate the companionship and the infinite unconditional love our animals offer us every day. The loss of that unconditional love can be devastating.

The only way to the other side of grief is to go through it. Blocking grief prolongs the process and can even affect your health. The grieving process is something that happens gradually. It can’t be forced or hurried, and there is no normal timetable for grieving. Some people start to feel better in weeks or months. For others, the grieving process is measured in years.

Trying to ignore the pain or keep it from surfacing will only make it worse in the long run. For real healing, it is necessary that you face the grief and actively deal with it. Sorrow and grief are normal and natural responses to death. Like grief for humans, grief for an animal companion can only be dealt with over time, but there are healthy ways to cope with the pain. Below you will find a few suggestions that might help you process and cope with your grief.

Listen to your own feelings. Don’t let anyone tell you how to feel. Your grief is unique to you. It is your own, and no one else can tell you when it’s time to move on or get over it. Let yourself feel whatever you feel without embarrassment or judgment. It’s okay to be angry, to cry or not to cry. It’s also okay to laugh, to find moments of joy, and to let go when you’re ready.

Seek out people who understand. Reach out to others who have lost their animal companion(s). Check out online message boards, animal loss hotlines, and animal loss support groups. If your own friends, family members, therapist, or clergy do not work well with the grief of an animal loss, find someone who does.