I’m so very sorry for your loss…this is an overwhelming experience and I’m glad you’re reaching out. This is such an important question that I chose it for my first RemembeRing blog post. The loss of a close furry friend is a special kind of heartbreak and deserves lots of care and compassion.
Getting Your Bearings
Whether the death of a loved one is anticipated or sudden, natural or traumatic, it is often devastating. At first, it can seem impossible to navigate the tumult of your despair because you feel so lost and anguished. You may be in shock and unable to function. Grief consumes immense amounts of energy so it can leave you completely drained and numb. That’s why relying on others for companionship, support and guidance can be really beneficial, like ballast for a boat in a storm.
This is especially true if this is the first time in your life that you’ve had either a dear person or pet die. You will find that the dynamics of your world and aspects of your identity are forever changed, and while you will eventually establish a new equilibrium, you are in the midst of discovering the differences. As you sit with your raw emotions, I hope you can take comfort in knowing that our friendships with pets make us better people — there are so many reasons to be grateful for our precious time with them.
Every individual’s experience with loss is unique so let’s begin by acknowledging that there’s no magic formula for how best to respond in order to ease your suffering and find meaning. Each of us must feel our own way through the darkness to the light. But please know that you’re not alone — there’s plenty of help and resources available.
You’ve likely heard of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s Five Phases of Grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These themes are not intended as a prescribed linear sequence and instead comprise a loose framework of common reactions as the bereaved face the world without their pet. Many people find her carefully considered insights (particularly those from later in her career) have value as they start to get their bearings. Her coauthor, David Kessler, added a sixth phase — meaning — due to the wisdom and grace that can be awakened during the grieving process.
It’s All About The Love
I hope the following truth helps you throughout this experience: Your intense grief is a direct expression of the intense love you share with your cherished pet, like two sides of the same rare coin. This love is beautiful and eternal and it deserves to be honored and celebrated.
Before I offer some suggestions, you may be wondering what we’re hoping for...
Perhaps you’ve heard the term “closure” — to me this word points to an ending, which I don’t believe in. Similarly, we tend to use “recovery” in relation to an illness, addiction or accident. Instead, while some might say I’m splitting hairs, I think the healthy objective is to become reconciled to the loss. Reconciliation means that you find grace and meaning as the reality settles in and as you fully integrate the death into your new sense of self and the world. It’s a unique, deeper kind of acceptance.
Grief isn’t a fixed entity nor a distinct event; it’s an ongoing transformative process. Some call it a journey but it can feel much more like a roller coaster. The interval right after the loss first happens tends to be the most intense, with the pain lessening as you heal through it. To become reconciled to a loss, we must fully experience it — not avoid or minimize it. Instead, we incorporate our relationship with the deceased in new ways. We allow the loss to change us as we pay tribute to the love that prevails.
It’s wise to note that fear of grief is a natural reaction. But the nature of fear is resistance and it’s based in the false impression that if we were to allow grief to manifest, more suffering would be generated; it turns out the opposite is true. When fear closes the heart and binds the spirit, it prevents the light of love from shining through the darkness. At its essence, "What we resist, persists."
Feeling Your Way Along
The only real choice for healing our grief is to open our hearts even wider and to soften around our loss. We don’t “get over” grief; instead, we are present with it and eventually develop a new equilibrium that reveals meanings and blessings to us. As we yield to grief, our bearings shift and energies flow, thereby presenting us with the possibility of making discoveries and affirming what matters most.
Let’s recognize that this is easier said than done. (Phew, right?) Unlike when a person dies, there aren’t any common, collective customs or rituals that we share for how we grieve a pet. This is truly unfortunate since our pets are often more trusted and devoted as companions than people! That said, rest assured that you’re in good company and many around you can provide solace, resources and insights to help you figure out what you need most. (I’m glad you’re reading this!)
Studies show that some of us go through the grieving process swiftly, while others may get stuck. Grief seldom reconciles in a few months and can remain actively influential for years. In general, when we make our way through our grief in a healthy manner, it does improve gradually as time goes on and the focus shifts from death/absence to life/presence.
What To Do…
So, here are some ideas for you to consider as you face your loss. Please let yourself trust your gut, your intuition, as to selecting which suit you and the special nature of your bond with your departed friend. No one knows better than you, and rejecting options can help you clarify and recognize your preferences.
- Most of all, be kind, gentle and patient with yourself. This is especially true if you are experiencing other life stressors at this time. Do what you can to slow down and take deep breaths. You may be surprised by the severe and pervasive impact that the loss of your pet is having in your life and on your heart. It will affect you in big and small ways; many will mystify you. It can disrupt every aspect of your being — emotional, cognitive, social, cultural, physical and spiritual. While it’s hard to fathom, this is normal, so go easy on yourself.
- There is a distinct, stark sense of emptiness that can descend when a pet dies because we’ve grown so used to them being so physically present and entirely dependent on us. Because of this constant companionship and sustained closeness, a huge void opens up when they’re gone. This is different than with human relationships; even most kids will develop more independence from parents than our pets ever will. If you are grieving an only-child pet, your life will change even more significantly because of how much you mutually relied on each other. If you have other pets in your family, please know that they will be grieving the loss of their sibling too, see here. And if you are helping children grieve the loss of your furry family member, see here.
- Despite how scrambled you feel, try to maintain some of your basic daily routines (e.g., eating, sleeping, bathing, exercising) because this familiarity will serve as a counterbalance to the inevitable confusion and distress. Likewise, because your pet was integral to your routines, consciously adjusting your pattern can help you cope, e.g., if you had a set time you walked your dog or played with your cat, substitute another favorite activity to do then or choose a new destination like a coffee shop.
- In fact, adding mindful self-care practices like a warm bath or cool swim, a hike in nature, yoga or a massage can make a world of difference. And drink plenty of water, even more if you're crying a lot. If, say, you enjoy bowling or want to see a matinee, go for it – let any feelings of guilt just pass through. Giving yourself such escapist jollies and small rewarding activities can restore your strength and perspective.
- If you have favorite creative outlets, this is the time to dive deep into them to help you explore and process your loss, while also bringing you some joy as a diversion from your heartache.
- Similarly, be sure to give yourself opportunity to physically move, even if it's simply a walk outside. Exercise in nature is a wonderful source of healing.
- Reach out to close friends, family and colleagues who you are sure truly appreciate and respect the intensity of your relationship with your pet. It’s even better if they knew your pet well so they can empathize and share anecdotes too. Keep in mind that, even with the best intentions, many people without pets cannot understand the depth of the connection you had with your furry companion.
Select people who will be open, empathic and inclined to connect not just during the acute moments but over the long term as your grief unfolds. This willingness to accompany you on your path is a wonderful validation of your community. There’s absolutely no reason to feel embarrassed about the intensity of your grief so avoid any suggestion that you’re overreacting. If it’s hard to find such immediate support, there are many online forums and Facebook pages of other animal lovers who warmly welcome grieving pet parents, e.g., https://www.aplb.org/chat/chat_petloss.html and Facebook’s Rainbow Bridge Pet Loss and Grief Support Group.
- You may find yourself crying and laughing at the same time, reveling in the joy your pet brought while also being miserable about their physical absence. That reaction can feel strangely good and it helps you heal. Let it happen.
- You may also find yourself seeing, hearing and talking to your pet. You aren’t going crazy! This is common because you’re so in the habit of them always being right there with you. Some bereaved persons even report receiving signs from the deceased. Either way, feel free to give a nod or throw a kiss as you remember they’re physically gone, smile to yourself, and make room for the sweet memories. If you want to send up a prayer or wish, go right ahead.
- Plan a simple memorial and invite folks who will support you and participate in it. It’s wonderful to reminisce together.
- Create a ritual to honor your pet, like lighting a candle or saying a blessing in their favorite spot. Preparing an altar with their belongings can help focus your grief and memorialize them.
- Write and post an obituary for your companion online or send out an announcement to your community.
- If you know a pastoral care provider, healthcare professional, or therapist you trust, contact them for their counsel.
- Make an annual donation to a charity that aligns with your special bond with your pet as a lasting tribute.
- And finally, I want to share my enthusiasm for RemembeRings as an effective and satisfying way to explore what you are going through at the end of your pet’s life. Its strength lies in its design as it captures the two complementary and united forces – Love and Grief – that flow together through you when a beloved furry companion dies.
A RemembeRing is conceived as a whole that you separate into its two parts – the outer ring becomes a picture frame (for holding on) and the center token is meant for your written farewell message to your cherished pal (for letting go). The opening that the token leaves is meant to represent the place in your heart that only they can fill. The combined power of these elements helps you both memorialize and celebrate your enduring bond and allows you to communicate your heartfelt sentiments to the deceased as a final act of love.
Here is a more comprehensive list of ideas that are specifically meant as ways to consider for memorializing your pet.
May you continue to enjoy the comfort of cherished memories and all the wonderful blessings that your pet brought into your life!