The First Year After the Loss of a Pet

Healing Pet Grief

The first year after the death of your beloved dog or cat can be a time of intense emotions. If you’re like most people, you miss them so much and just want them back. You’ve lost something you not only deeply love, but chances are much of your daily life circled around your pet. First thing in the morning, you fed them or let them out. They were always in your consciousness, whether they were right beside you or waiting for you at home. For many of us, our animals were a large part of our identity. We have lost a part of ourselves and now we have to learn a new way of being.  

Based on many of my client’s experiences (and my own), following are eight things you may face during that first year. There are no easy answers here but my hope is that reading this list can bring you some comfort in knowing you are not alone. Most likely, whatever you are going through is a normal response to losing the beloved companion who inhabited a huge part of your heart, your home, and your life.

We are all different and will grieve differently. As the poet Alla Renee Bozarth says, “As no love is the same, no loss is.” Unfortunately, the only cure for grief is to grieve and although that means heartbreak, please know that the acute pain you are feeling now will eventually lessen.  

  1. Right after the loss you may be in shock. Even if we knew our pet was old or terminally ill, we are rarely fully prepared for the reality of death.  Shock can affect us physically, mentally, and emotionally. We may feel physically sick or numb. We may feel unable to concentrate or like we are observing life from a distance. We may feel unable to cry or we may cry uncontrollably.

It’s hard to believe, let alone accept that our companion is gone. This phase of grief can last for days or even weeks. It is actually our body’s way of protecting us from the initial pain. If our animal was killed violently or died suddenly and unexpectedly, this state of shock may be even greater. Here is a helpful article describing shock after bereavement. Although it is written about human loss, I have found for some, the pain of losing a cherished animal can be even greater than losing a human.  

2. Once the shock has worn off a little, we may be inundated by the pain of grief. It’s not unusual to feel an acute sense of emptiness and everywhere we look reminds us of what we have lost.  It can feel agonizing to walk in the door without our dog’s excited greeting or the sensation of a cat rubbing and circling against our legs. This emptiness can feel unbearable.

3. We question ourselves and our choices. We may beat ourselves up. Why did I let her suffer? I should have had the euthanasia done sooner.  Did I let the vet do it too soon? Maybe she could have gotten better. Why didn’t I notice that she was losing weight? Why didn’t the vet discover what was going on earlier?  How could I have let the cat go outside? Our pets are like our children who never grew up and we have been responsible for everything in their daily lives. That sense of responsibility doesn’t just go away overnight. It stays with us even after our beloved animal is gone and may later take the form of more questions, self-recriminations, and self-doubt.

4. We wonder if we are doing grief right. We feel guilty if we do something enjoyable after our dog or cat has died. If we don’t cry constantly, does that mean we are forgetting them? If we can’t stop crying, does that mean there is something wrong with us? Since everyone grieves differently, there is no right way to do it. Sometimes it means just getting through the day in a fog of pain. Other times it means getting distracted by something or someone we love. And sometimes it means living in that in-between space of letting ourselves do something enjoyable or meaningful and giving ourselves space to mourn our loss.

5. It is actually pretty common to see or hear our animal after their death, even though intellectually we know they are gone. When Kiva my dog of 14 years died, I thought I heard the faint click of his claws on the hardwood floor for months. I think my brain was hardwired to hear it after so many years of living together. My cat Javi would go in and out of a window in our living room. When he came in, there was always a thud that meant Javi had jumped down from the window and was home. For a long time after his death, I would occasionally hear a thud when I was watching TV or least expecting it. One of my clients thought she saw her cat in shadow for weeks after the death. There are different explanations for this phenomenon. Is it grief induced created out of an intense longing for that which we have lost?  Is it something else with a similar sound or appearance? Maybe the house is settling or that lump of blankets resembles a cat in dim light.  Or is it spiritual?  We can draw our own conclusions based on our own beliefs or we may never be sure. Whatever it is, please know you’re not crazy. It happens to a lot of us.  

6. As we go through the year, we will experience many “firsts” without our furry best friend. Some of these are holidays, the first snow, the first hike without the dog, or a trip to the beach. Be patient with yourself as each experience can trigger deep feelings of loss, even after the initial acute grief has diminished. It doesn’t mean you’re going backwards. It actually means you’re healing as you allow yourself the emotional release these times can bring on.

7. As with “firsts” we may experience other grief triggers. These are often unexpected and sudden, such as the person in front of you at the grocery store buying your cat’s brand of food. Or walking by a dog that resembled your own. You may be surprised by the intensity of feelings these triggers can bring on. Sometimes even a smell can be a trigger. It is natural to want to resist the pain but remember that every time you let yourself experience your feelings, no matter how painful, you are moving forward in your healing journey.  

8. You may want another animal very soon after the death to fill the void. I have worked with clients who made this decision too fast and regretted it. They felt like they hadn’t given themselves enough time to mourn for the pet they had lost. It was an impulsive move that ended up not being fair to them or the new pet. And I’ve had other clients who have successfully adopted another pet fairly soon after the death. If you allow yourself to slow down, give yourself time to grieve, and pay attention to your feelings, you will know when the time is right. This article by Moira Allen with tips about adopting a new pet after a loss can be helpful if you are in the process of making a decision.  

The most important thing during the first year is to be kind and patient with yourself. Let yourself experience your feelings and, although it may be difficult to believe, it will not always be this hard.

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