It is natural and normal for the loss of a pet to be traumatic and painful. Over the years, we develop extremely strong emotional relationships with our pets and they become a source of unconditional love, support, friendship, joy, security, comfort, and stability for us. This relationship is significant and special in its own way. Ownership of a pet offers many benefits to our physical, mental, and emotional health.
Unfortunately, living with a pet also means exposure to critical situations such as illness, aging, or death. Compared to people, animals typically live a shorter life and, for most owners, it is inevitable that at some point, they lose the company of their best friend. Breaking this extremely important relationship that we have built and shared with a pet is very similar to the loss of a family member or other significant people in our life, so the process of grief is similar and very difficult.
It is expected that we pass through a phase of denial, anger, and depression. In the beginning, the feeling of discouragement, disbelief, or denial is dominant. We often blame ourselves or others (for example, in the case of illness, we transmit anger to a veterinarian), we retreat socially and isolate ourselves, lose motivation and appetite, or develop insomnia. It is especially difficult if we have experienced other recent losses. The expression and acceptance of all the heavy emotions we observe are extremely important in order to prevent the development of complicated, pathological grief and in order to move forward.
It is especially hard for children who describe the pet as a friend or even as a brother or sister. For them, the death of a pet may be the first encounter with loss and can become the basis for how to deal with losses when they grow up. For parents, the topic of death is very difficult, so they are inclined to think of justification and excuses, often hiding their own sadness in order to protect their children. Still, many kids actually want to talk about it. Let them ask you questions and, with honest answers in line with the child’s age, you can help them overcome fear and confusion. Do not try to ease them by telling them that their dog has escaped or been stolen because they are at risk of feeling anger and helplessness and, in the end, they feel cheated. Grief is not the same in children and adults, but that does not mean that they feel less pain. Do not tell them not to cry and not be sad, but share with them what you go through yourself. It is useful to allow them to participate in rituals of forgiveness, but keep in mind that you, as a parent, best know your child and know how much information they can handle.
A new pet should be adopted only when you are ready to move on and start a new relationship. If you do this too soon, you can complicate the process of grief or mistakenly expect the new pet to immediate relief, especially to children. There are people who don’t want a new pet because they think it’s a kind of betrayal. Do not hurry with the decision; wait until you work through your grief and have returned to normal functioning.
Euthanasia is one of the most difficult decisions we can face as a pet owner. To make such a decision and choice can be particularly traumatic. It is a difficult emotional situation that can lead to stress, disappointment, anger, and feelings of guilt and failure which intertwine with the process of grief and prolong it. We must be aware that euthanasia in some situations is the only right and humane thing we could do for our pet to reduce their suffering.