When a beloved pet dies, so much changes — the intensity of the loss reaches into every corner of our world, with its grief registering across all realms of life. Research shows that emotional pain activates the same regions in the brain as physical pain. Because of this, we are often “sick with grief” and its troubling impact can manifest in various specific and overlapping ways, such as:
- Physical: Insomnia, extreme fatigue or lethargy; loss of or insatiable appetite; rashes or hair loss; nausea/gas/diarrhea/constipation; back, neck or headaches; tinnitus; grinding/clenching teeth; chills or heat flashes; agitation, tremors or muscle stiffness; heart palpitations, changes in breathing or dizziness
- Emotional: Shock, Wildly fluctuating feelings, sorrow, despair, anguish, loneliness, anxiety, worry, doubt, regret, guilt, shame, irritability, anger/rage, numbness
- Cognitive: Disbelief, denial, avoidance, detachment, obsessive or intrusive thoughts, brain fog, confusion, memory lapses, inability to concentrate, distressing dreams or nightmares
- Behavioral: Crying, avoiding social contact/isolation, withdrawing from routines, declining favorite activities
- Spiritual: Searching for meaning or pursuing changes in one’s personal beliefs
While these common characteristics of loss may surprise someone who is new to such a major life event, grief is a universal, natural and inevitable human experience and, over time, we come to anticipate and recognize its patterns along with each of our unique reactions to them. There is an uneasy comfort that comes with this familiarity and it still doesn’t lessen the immediate suffering that the death of a pet brings.
Their Absence Has a Profound Presence
When we lose a loved one — whether four- or two-legged — the essence of the hardship at its core is always absence. They’re gone, physically gone. Yes, the love and memories go on forever, but that absence asserts itself as a demanding, pervasive presence. When the death happens, we are suddenly and thoroughly forced to face the excruciating fact that they’re beyond our reach.
At that moment of loss, one of the words you’ll hear used most often to express the sensation is “hole”, and when its location is described, it tends either to be in the grieving person’s heart or at the center of their entire world. This term captures the gaping void that is left behind by the missing loved one that only they can fill.
We can’t dodge or avoid the painful reality that we can no longer touch the special dog or cat that we adored so much. We will never again enjoy their physical company, look into their eyes, stroke their fur, or share all the fun and affection we’ve known so intimately.
What We Can No Longer Hear
In the midst of the acute shock that accompanies our companion animal’s passing, we are so filled with the heartache that comes with transitioning their body out of the space that we shared, it often takes a little time to recognize the one aspect of grief that is seldom mentioned — the silence that ensues.
When a favorite dog or cat dies, we miss the barks, mews, purrs, whimpers, growls, yips, howls, snorts or snores…the jingle of collar tags, the squeak of toys, the crunch of kibble and splash of the water bowl, or the pitter patter of paws. Without them, this silence can be overwhelming and consuming, excruciatingly loud.
The sweet and satisfying ambient soundtrack of a close animal companion is fully woven into our lives, such a familiar part of the daily fabric, that when it stops, we’re stunned, lost. The auditory memories are so poignant that the silence that is left is deafening.
Those essential noises were informative, subliminal signals that gave definition to the flow of time and the contours of our relationships with our pets, other family members, and broader community. These communications became second-nature as we intuitively understood their meanings and they shaped our interactions and daily activities. They were embedded into the particulars of our daily routines, so, once those sounds stop, naturally we become disoriented.
It’s not unusual for grieving pet people to imagine hearing their deceased companions for weeks or months because we become so used to their sound effects being part of our personal narrative.
Coping with the Silence
Let’s remember that it takes a long while to build a close relationship with a pet; therefore, just because their body stops functioning, it also takes a long while to get used to them not being there anymore. For many of us, our attachment to a beloved pet becomes so deep and intense over time that they integrate into our very identities. When they go, they take a piece of us with them.
Fortunately, there are many effective strategies that can help us cope and heal through our grief. It’s important to underscore that each individual grieves in their own ways and at their own pace. In addition, the nature of the relationship with the specific pet further defines the distinct features of one’s grief and how we will navigate and reconcile ourselves to it.
Our RemembeRing Guidance pages and other Blog posts are meant to provide lots of ideas and suggestions to support your grief process. Please explore them as you get your bearings in order to identify your preferred ways that bring comfort and help you feel better.
Regarding the silence that accompanies the loss of a beloved companion animal, you might consider these responses to that emptiness:
- Play continuous music softly in the background, especially favorite artists
- Leave a TV’s volume on low
- Purchase a sound machine or select a Spotify/Pandora channel with different nature tones in order to adjust the atmosphere in your space, e.g., ocean, rain, forest, white noise
- Reach out to a family member, friend, pastoral care provider, or neighbor who agrees to be available for quick chats in order to share feelings and stories and to stay connected, especially when you’re having a really rough moment
- Select a pet loss support group, FaceBook grief page, or phone resource as another outlet to help you move through your experience
- Go outside frequently and take walks alone or in the company of others
- Have friends over to watch a movie or play a board game together
- Engage in other healthy distractions that you tend to enjoy — there’s much to be said for cheap thrills
- When you’re feeling strong enough and inclined, you may also choose to sit in the silence and allow the feelings and sensations to flow freely.
A Few More Thoughts
One other related intervention for your consideration speaks more to the physical objects associated with your pet — their collar/tags/bells, toys, bowls, beds, clothes, food and treats. Some bereaved persons take solace in having these things around them, while others feel the opposite. So, I recommend reflecting on your own reactions to seeing them and decide if they help or hurt. If you prefer to have them out of sight, it can be easiest to ask a friend to keep you company while you decide which ones you want to keep out, pack up, dispose of, or give away.
Above all, please know that while you are missing your dear friend terribly and the loneliness brings all sorts of unpredictable distress, the love you share will endure forever and will bring you its own comfort, if not at this moment, then in due time.
And right now, it may be hard to believe that others really understand what you’re going through, but rest assured there are many, many people who do, and they are happy and willing to be there in whatever ways you need them. When you’re ready, reach out and you will find them.I truly hope this helps. If you’d like to explore additional resources, please click here. And of course, we always welcome your feedback here.