The relationships you have with your pets are different than any other relationship in your life. While your differing views on politics or your last boyfriend can complicate your bond with your mom, you and your dog (presumably) have no such issues. Pets love unconditionally—and hey, they’ve seen you naked, sick, crying, and drinking straight from the orange juice carton. It’s no wonder that walking, feeding, and snuggling with them becomes an important part of your daily routine.
And when your pet dies, it can feel like a staggering loss—yet it’s a grief that is often not recognized by other people. Elizabeth Allen says the pain she felt after of losing her cat Fiona took her by surprise in many ways. And she didn’t even get a card. “That’s what really affected me the most because she was my first pet and she was, to me, like a child,” Allen says. Now a pet grief support specialist at the San Diego-based pet hospice and at-home euthanasia provider Paws Into Grace, Allen has dedicated the nearly 20 years since Fiona’s been gone to helping others through the experience of grieving a pet.
“I would say probably 90 percent of the people who call me are so distraught—I’ve been crying for days. I can’t eat.—they think they’re going basically crazy.” —Wendy Van de Poll
Experts like Allen say one of the main reasons pet loss is so hard to handle is that, even with the progress that’s been made, most people still think of it as less emotionally significant than other kinds of loss. (Although, at the same time, some companies have made headlines for offering paid pet bereavement leave—so there are widely varying levels of understanding about this kind of grief.) “I would say probably 90 percent of the people who call me are so distraught—I’ve been crying for days. I can’t eat.—they think they’re going basically crazy,” Wendy Van de Poll, founder of the online Center for Pet Loss Grief, says. One 2004 study found that for some people, losing a pet feels just as traumatic as losing a person that they are close to. Another showed that of the 85 percent of those surveyed who reported feeling grief at the death of a pet, more than 35 percent were still feeling it six months later.
How can you get the emotional support you need, when you’re grieving an animal instead of a human?
Social media can be a healing tool, whether it connects those in dog or cat mourning with local support groups or just gives them a needed outlet to express their feelings. When Christina Aguilera put her 17-year-old dog Stinky down recently, she posted a heartfelt video tribute and caption on Instagram remembering “[her] roadie through the tours…breakups…[and] life’s many ups and downs…[her] 1st baby before [she] had any babies.” The message got more than 130,000 likes.
Be generous with your timetable
Other than reaching out for comfort from fellow pet lovers online or in person, Allen and Van de Poll recommend that people dealing with pet loss give themselves time to grieve and acknowledge how significant the loss may be for them. “There are so many myths around pet loss grief and as a society we believe them—one of the big ones is it’s selfish and extravagant to mourn and grieve the death of a pet when the world is already suffering from human loss,” Van de Poll says. “But we’re capable of doing both.” If your grief gets in the way of normal healthy functioning—you’re not eating, you can’t go to work after a few days off and talking to a friend about your feelings—then professional help from a therapist or grief specialist is the next step, Van de Poll says.
Say goodbye in a personal way
A memorial service, photobooks, jewelry made from their remains, or other projects can all be healthy ways to celebrate your pet’s life. Both Allen and Van de Poll suggest writing a letter to your late pet, or even imagining one they might write to you. They agree that what can help the most is to keep the memory of the relationship you shared alive—and remember, everyone grieves in a different way.
Here’s a guide for plants that are pet-safe. And learn about all the innovations in food that will keep them healthy and living longer.