Many of us feel as close to our pets as we do to human family members and some of us feel even closer. This special connection is reflected in the depth of our grief when we lose them. We love their precious faces, the feel of their fur under our hands, and the security of their constant and loving presence. Who else but a dog would quiver or jump for joy at seeing us when we’ve only been gone an hour? What is more calming than stroking the soft fur of a cat and feeling the rhythmic vibrations of a purr?
In my pet loss counseling practice, I specialize in supporting people who are grieving the loss of dogs, cats, and small animals. When our beloved pets die, we are not only losing their cherished physical bodies, but also everything else they gave us. If you are like many who feel almost embarrassed by the depth of your grief or if there are others in your life who think “you should be over it by now,” here are some common reasons why we grieve:
Your pet gave you unconditional love and acceptance; a gift hard to find in this world.
Our animals don’t judge, criticize, or condemn us. They just love and accept us for whoever we are at any given moment. The loss of this loving presence can leave a gaping hole.
A pet that has reached old age could possibly have been with you longer than many adults in your life.
For a lot of us, lifetime friends have moved away, adult children have relocated to follow a job, and relationships ended through death or divorce. Statistics show that the average length of time a marriage lasts in this country is only 8 – 10 years! Healthy dogs, depending on their breed, can live an average of 11 to 16 years. Healthy cats can live to their twenties.
The first pet I had on my own was a cat named Flakey that I adopted when I was in college. She ended up living with me for 18 years and was the most consistent thing in my life throughout my twenties and thirties. She moved with me half a dozen times in college and after, graciously let my new husband join us, and was there for the birth and early years of my son. If you’re surprised at how long your grief is lasting, just consider how many years you’ve shared your home and your heart with your animal family member.
Your pet was there for you during the hard times.
If you have experienced a serious illness, the loss of a job, depression, the loss of a relationship, the death of a loved one, or any other life challenge, no doubt your animal companion was nearby to comfort you with a warm body, furry snuggles, or a chin resting on your leg. We feel loved and completely secure in sharing our most difficult moments with our pets. The absence of this lovingly steadfast presence is an overwhelming loss.
While you loved and took care of your pet, you were inadvertently taking care of yourself.
This can mean living in healthier ways, which isn’t always so easy without our animals to remind us. Some things that come to mind from my own experiences are getting exercise with my dog and reducing stress with my cat.
I think our German Shepherd Kiva was psychic. If I just thought about taking him out for a walk, he’d grab my shoe and throw it at me. Most of the time, I couldn’t disappoint him no matter the weather or how tired I felt. He kept me healthy because I don’t think I would have gotten much exercise in those days when I was a solo parent if it hadn’t been for him. Even when his arthritis became debilitating, there was nothing he loved more than to slowly walk, sniff, and pee. After his death, I didn’t walk outside for quite a while. It just hurt too much to walk our usual route and answer the neighbors when they asked, “Where’s Kiva?”
Our last animal was a crazy, snuggly, funny, adventurous cat named Javier who was about the size of Kiva’s nose. He taught me that it was OK to stop being busy and let myself relax – as long as it was with him, of course. He “made” me practice mindfulness. He died almost two years ago and now that he’s gone, I don’t have his incredibly soft fur to stroke and his rumbling purrs to ground me. It’s harder to let myself stop and relax.
If our pets were able to send us a message, I think they would want us to take care of ourselves since they aren’t here to protect us anymore.
Your daily routine included caring for and thinking about your pet.
I have never had an animal that I didn’t feed or let out first thing in the morning. For many of us, our daily rituals include caring for our animals as well as just having them around. Maybe your cat was usually on your lap when you read or watched TV in the evenings. Maybe your dog accompanied you on your daily run or you threw a ball for her every day after work. Or when you traveled, you worried about your pet missing you and hoped she was OK. Our animals take up so much of our consciousness. Their absence is a shock and creates a sense of overwhelming emptiness.
Your pet was like a child who never grew up and you were responsible for everything, every day.
Many people, including me, call their pet “my baby,” because that’s how it feels. With innocence and trust, they depend on us to take care of them completely and we do, gladly. We provide protection, food and shelter, toys, companionship, play, grooming, medical care, and whatever else they need for their health, happiness and well-being. In return, they give us steadfast devotion and that leads to a profound, meaningful, and precious relationship.
When we’re responsible for every aspect of a pet’s life, it’s common to feel responsible for the death as well. We feel like we’ve failed them. Intellectually, we may know we did everything we could to keep them healthy, safe, and loved. But that doesn’t matter because our pets depended on us. And if the agonizing choice of euthanasia is in the picture, guilt almost always creeps in. It’s inevitable to second guess our decision after the fact.
Maybe we should have taken him to a different vet. Maybe we should have tried more medications or a raw food diet. Was it too soon and he would have gotten better? Was it too late and he suffered needlessly? We feel like we should have been able to alter or prevent our pet’s death but the truth is, we don’t always have that kind of control. A hospice social worker once told me, “Any decision made from love is the right one.” And I think that’s so important to remember, especially if you’re filled with guilt and remorse after euthanasia.
Heartbreaking accidents happen, coyotes kill cats, or we may have unintentionally left the gate open. There are so many causes of death that are beyond our control. Maybe we could have prevented a death by being more vigilant. But none of us are perfect; we all make mistakes and that’s what makes us human. Guilt can add a misery that compounds the pain of grief. So as hard as it is, we need to remember all the good things we did for our pets and work on forgiving ourselves. Because our animals would have forgiven us right away.
If you are looking for private and empathetic grief support, I would be honored to help. Please see My Approach for more details.