If you have found yourself here, I imagine that you or someone you know is the owner of an elderly or dying pet, or has recently lost a pet. I am so sorry that you are going through this, and your grief is valid. Let me explain.
Pets are part of our family. From the moment that we bring them home, we are their world. We share joyful moments with them, as well as difficult ones — not to mention meals, and even sleeping spaces. Although their typical lifespans are much shorter than humans, they pack their time here with loyalty, joy, and, most notably, unconditional love. As a therapist, the subject of conditional versus unconditional love comes up frequently in my practice — as humans, we crave this type of love because it makes us feel safe in our bodies and minds. Pets provide this sense of safety. For these reasons, and many, many more, it is clear that the impact that pets have on us is enormous. Thus, the grief we feel when we lose a pet may match this seemingly expansive feeling.
Validate and process your feelings of grief.
Recently, a client was sharing feelings of anger that had been surfacing. She was speaking about a parking ticket she had received, when suddenly tears began streaming down her face. “I miss Buster so much,” she said, without hesitation. She and I had spoken about the loss of her dog the year prior, but had only spent a session talking it over before something else had come up. As we talked further, it became clear that the client had considered her grief around her pet’s death “silly” and “exaggerated”, and had essentially ignored it, or “stuffed it down”.
When we do this — when we ignore our feelings of grief or invalidate them — the grief typically manifests in different ways, such as anger or depression. We may feel overwhelmed by the feelings, unsure of how to manage them. The memories that we had of our pets become clouded by this question of whether the grief is real or not. I am here to assure you that it is real and that the best way to process grief is to really feel all of those feelings. As Bessel van der Kolk says in his bestselling book The Body Keeps the Score “People who feel safe in their bodies can begin to translate the memories that previously overwhelmed them into language”. Journaling about what your pet meant to you, joining a group of grieving pet owners, memorializing your pet in a beautiful way, or simply sharing with a friend over coffee about your grief can help you move through it.
Grief and self-compassion.
Self-compassion is a concept to keep in mind as you recognize and move through grief. Kristin Neff, in her book titled Self-Compassion states, “At the most basic level, self-compassion simply requires being a good friend to ourselves”. As you recognize your grief, extend compassion toward yourself by emphasizing how difficult it is to lose a beloved pet. You might even imagine that your pet is with you, and what your pet might say to you in that moment if they could speak. As your trusty companion, I imagine your pet might say something like, “This is so hard, and your tears are valid. I love you”.
You cannot minimize one feeling without minimizing them all. We love our pets so deeply, and the grief we feel when we lose a pet matches this love. In fact, grief is an indication, a heartfelt message to yourself, of the enduring love that you have for your pet.
Molly Palmer is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in Seattle, Washington.
V. D. Kolk, Bessel (2014). The body keeps the score: brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma.
Neff, Kristin (2011). Self-compassion: the proven power of being kind to yourself