I remember the day we got her: Penny was a tiny chocolate ball of a puppy who already knew how to fetch and she could sleep in the bed with her human parents. I lived with my boyfriend and we raised her together before adding another puppy, Zelda, to our household a year later. I loved all three of my roommates so much—until my boyfriend and I broke up and he took the dogs. And that’s why I have to write about them in past tense. They’re still alive, but not in my life.
The last time I saw Penny and Zelda in person, I was moving the last bit of my stuff out of the apartment as they innocently watched. I didn’t want to say goodbye (I was in denial) but I didn’t ignore them, either. I remember kissing them and petting them but not going in for another kiss—as I used to always do, when they gave me those puppy-dog-don’t-leave-me-eyes—as I dragged my suitcase out the front door. When the door shut, I felt my heart break in a way that really, truly felt literal.
That day was over a year ago, and I still miss them. In fact, dealing with the loss was way harder than getting over the relationship itself. After all, I helped raise them, and then all of the sudden they weren’t part of my life. I still sometimes cry about my former pups—and I’m not alone in my grief.
Experts seem to agree that mourning the loss of a pet due to a breakup is a real-deal struggle. “The same way you grieve the loss of a partner or someone who’s passed away is the same way you grieve the loss of a pet,” says Jennifer Silvershein, LCSW, a New York-based clinical psychotherapist. “You lose the identity of being a pet owner.” But there’s a distinct difference between losing a pet and working to get over a failed relationship: My dogs played no part in the breakup. “Breakups can be nasty, but the pets were completely innocent in the situation,” says licensed clinical psychotherapist Margena Carter, LMFT.
To make moving on easier, Silvershein recommends working through the seven stages of grief (shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing, and acceptance), because though my pets hadn’t died, they were no longer active figures in my life. Beyond that, Carter and Silvershein offer tips for processing your new pet-less normal.
1. Allow the pain
Let yourself feel all the feels, says Silvershein. “The quicker people are able to realize they’re going to feel these feelings—not rejecting them and just experiencing them—would be better. Humans are hardwired to process. If you let yourself process, you can get through it.”
So when a wave of sadness falls over you upon seeing a similar-looking dog on the street or a cat as you’re scrolling through Instagram, let yourself cry if that’s what your body wants to do. Suppressing yourself is just delaying the process.
2. Replace reminders
After my breakup, my phone was still packed with hundreds of photos of my pups—and, when one came up, I’d burst into tears. “Removing reminders and pictures or pet toys and creating new activities in the time you used to spend with your pet can help,” says Carter.
“In the time where you used to take your dog for a walk or head to the dog park, do something else. Replace the morning barking sound with birds chirping or something else that wakes you up. Replace those moments with something that isn’t a reminder of your pet so that your mind goes to a better place.” —Margena Carter, LMFT
“In the time where you used to take your dog for a walk or head to the dog park, do something else,” she adds. “Replace the morning barking sound with birds chirping or something else that wakes you up. Replace those moments with something that isn’t a reminder of your pet so that your mind goes to a better place.” It sounds harsh but can help you clear your mind as you’re dealing with the grief.
3. Learn from it
When the breakup happens, you and your ex obviously have to figure out who continues ownership of the pet. Sometimes this results in a fight, sometimes not, and sometimes people decide to share custody (something Silvershein doesn’t recommend, as she says doing so can complicate moving on from the relationship itself). Regardless of the course of action, it’s a logistical obstacle that can be avoided the next time you share a pet with a loved one.
“People need to be mindful upfront—there should be a pet-nup, just like a prenup,” says Carter. Silvershein agrees, adding that though people never think they’ll break up with their S.O., it’s vital to have plans in place in case the unthinkable happens.
4. Consider your own pet
Of course, the brightest possibility to come from the whole depressing scenario is the potential to eventually get another pet. But until the time is right, you can spend QT with furry friends that don’t trigger you. “Ask a friend with a dog if you can watch their pet for the weekend, or volunteer at a pet shelter,” says Carter.
I, personally, pretty much always ask strangers on the street if I can pet their dog—and I highly recommend it. Maybe it’s even a form of exposure therapy. And FWIW, I’m doing better these days…most days (okay, I’m fine, but I still have a box of tissues nearby just in case).
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