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Dr. Brynna Connor, MD
Dr. Brynna Connor
Healthcare Ambassador at NorthWestPharmacy.com

Mental Health

Grieving the Loss of a Pet: Personal and Health Impact, Coping, and Self-Care When Your Beloved Pet Dies

August 4, 2020

Losing a pet can be devastating. Often, other people don't realize the impact a pet has on our lives, which can make the experience feel isolating. Our relationships with pets are so important that they can affect our mental and physical health, which can suffer when a pet passes. People who are struggling with pet loss can use many strategies to help themselves work through the grieving process.

Pet Loss Can Impact Our Health

Pets can actually make us healthier people. Those who have pets tend to have lower rates of heart disease and lower blood pressure. Some studies have found that they are also less likely to experience loneliness or depression, and more likely to say they are satisfied with their life. So it may be no surprise that when we lose this relationship, our health is affected in a negative way.

Pet Loss and Mental Health

Research shows that when we experience grief, our brains undergo physical changes. These changes can affect our thought processes and emotions. For many people, grief results in feelings of sadness, depression, guilt, anger, anxiety, relief, loneliness, or feeling irritable. Some people experience mental symptoms of grief, which may include confusion, trouble focusing, constant dwelling on your pet, or thinking you see or hear your pet. Loss of an animal companion can also lead to anxiety and depression for some people.

Pet Loss and Physical Health

Grief from pet loss may also lead to physical symptoms, such as fatigue, insomnia, a hollow feeling in the stomach, tightness in the chest, dry mouth, and aches and pains.

Sometimes, our reactions to grief can be severe. One woman reportedly experienced “broken heart syndrome” after losing her dog. This condition occurs when one chamber of the heart suddenly weakens in response to an emotional or physical stress. Its symptoms are similar to heart attack symptoms. While this condition is rare, it highlights the large effect that grief can have on the body.

Why Losing a Pet is Especially Difficult

It's common to think that people don't get that sad after loss of a pet. But research tells us that often, the grief that people feel following loss of an animal companion feels the same as grief following loss of a human companion. In some cases, people report even more intense feelings. This may be because of the special type of relationship we feel with our pets. Often, it feels like a parent-child relationship, and is associated with unconditional love and acceptance, which we don't always get in our human relationships. Feeling these especially strong feelings after pet loss may take some people by surprise and lead to feeling shame or guilt.

There are many reasons why grieving a pet can be just as or even more difficult than grieving a human:

  • While everyone can understand and empathize with loss of a person, not everyone can grasp how devastating pet loss can be. Some people may make insensitive comments, such as “you can just get another pet,” which adds to the sense that other people don't understand what we're going through.
  • We don't tend to have the same rituals surrounding pet loss as we do with the loss of our fellow humans. This may include not getting as much social support from others. This may lead to feeling like our emotions aren't valid, and feeling even more isolated.
  • Because some people don't understand pet loss, we often don't have as much space to process emotions. For example, pet loss is often not considered a valid reason for taking time off of work. People who have just lost a companion may find it extremely difficult to keep up with normal responsibilities, even though they are expected to keep performing as normal.
  • Because of stigma surrounding grieving during pet loss, some people may find it hard to talk openly about what they are struggling with. Often, people who have lost a pet feel embarrassed or ashamed at the depth of their emotion.

Being hesitant to acknowledge or talk about these strong emotions is common. Not having solid support systems surrounding pet loss can sometimes make processing it more difficult. This may mean that the pet grieving process is more complex and it can take longer for us to move on.

Another difficulty surrounding pet loss that is often unacknowledged is that it leads to changes in a person's routine. Perhaps a person got used to being woken up in the morning by their hungry cat, or getting exercise through walking their dog. When that pet is gone, a person's whole daily routine may be thrown off, leaving a person feeling even more lost. Small hassles and disruptions to a person's routine can easily add up to be just as stressful and harmful to health than bigger events.

Coping and Self-Care Following Pet Loss

People can help themselves following loss by working towards self-compassion. Dr. Kristin Neff of the University of Texas at Austin developed a scientific way of thinking about and measuring self-compassion that is based on Buddhist psychology. This definition of self-compassion includes three things: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.

Why should people who are experiencing loss think about self-compassion? It can make the grieving process easier to deal with and may help lessen negative thoughts. It can also boost a person's mental and physical health. People who use more self-compassionate thinking have fewer symptoms of depression and can better manage stress.

Self-Kindness

Self-kindness is a process of acknowledging our pain and not being critical of ourselves for it. Negative emotions are a normal part of grief, and of life.

Awareness is the first step of self-care – it is only by being honest with ourselves that we can then try to give ourselves what we need. Writing down thoughts in a journal or talking things over with a trusted friend can help people sort through their feelings.

When people better understand what they are going through, they can then try to help themselves deal with the emotions. We should make sure to give ourselves time and space to feel all of our emotions, even the bad ones. This may mean that on especially difficult days, we take a break from work or other responsibilities if possible. It also may mean being honest with other people about what we're going through, rather than pretending everything is fine.

Other ways people can deal with their emotions and practice self-kindness while mourning the loss of a pet include:

  • Having a memorial service or funeral. Some people may choose to bury a pet or spread their ashes in their favorite place. This can help people get a better sense of closure.
  • Reflecting on positive memories by making a list, writing a letter, or choosing a picture to frame and hang in the home.
  • Spending some time in the pet's favorite places. This may include going to a dog park, taking a walk down a familiar route, or even just spending some time in the yard.

If your emotions are very strong and you're having a hard time dealing with them, you can consider going to individual or group therapy. Therapists can help people better identify their emotions and learn to work through them to get to a healthier place. This is especially important for people who experience symptoms of anxiety or depression following loss of a pet.

Common Humanity

When dealing with strong negative emotions, it's easy to feel isolated and that no one else understands. When grieving a pet, remember that other people have also gone through this experience and probably had very similar emotions. You aren't alone, even if you feel like you're the only one grieving your pet.

Often, people dealing with pet loss feel like they don't get validation and support from loved ones. Try reaching out to friends and family when you're struggling and let them know you could use some extra support. This is especially important for people who live alone, who often experience even stronger feelings of grief and depression following pet loss. If you don't feel like you're getting the support you need, you can try connecting with others who are in a similar situation as you, by:

  • Joining an online forum or Facebook group dedicated to pet loss, and sharing your story with others who better understand your experience.
  • Finding an in-person support group in your area. Some animal clinics and therapists' offices offer this service. These groups can help people feel solidarity with others who are grieving.
  • Reading a book or blog about pet loss to learn about other people's experiences with death of an animal friend.

Mindfulness

Being mindful means focusing on what is happening in the present, rather than being stuck in the past or overly worrying about the future. Practicing mindfulness can help people deal with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety and can help ease emotional distress.

Ways that people can be more mindful include:

  • Making a list of the things you're thankful for
  • Practicing meditation. There are many books, apps, and YouTube videos that can help teach beginners the basics.
  • Reorganizing your previous routines related to your pets. For example, if you're used to hanging out with friends at the dog park, find other ways to socialize. This can help the loss not feel so disruptive to your daily life.

It's also important to make sure to keep meeting your basic needs. It's common to have changes in appetite or sleep when going through an emotional time. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, and eat regularly. Do your best to also take care of others in your household who may need it. Make sure that other family members, especially children, are processing the loss too and receiving comfort when they need it. Maintain routines with other pets as well. Animals can experience grief too, so give them extra attention by playing their favorite games or giving them extra pets.

Moving On After Loss

Each person takes a different amount of time to work through grief. It may seem like some people heal quickly, while others take much longer to come to terms with loss. Ultimately, while we can take steps to care for ourselves during the grieving process, there's not much anyone can do to control how long it takes to heal. Many people still experience intense symptoms of grief for a year or more following a pet's death.

Some people may find that getting another pet can help the healing process. Others may find that they aren't ready to form a relationship with a new pet for a long time. If people do choose to get another pet, they should make sure that they are doing it for the right reasons. In some cases, getting a pet too soon may actually make the grieving process harder in the long run. For example, someone may be tempted to get a new pet as a way to distract themselves from negative emotions, rather than working through them. Another issue may be that someone expects a new pet to have the same behaviors or interests as their old pet. This can lead to disappointment when the person finds that they can't have the same type of relationship with a new pet as they are used to.

Those who aren't ready to bring another pet into their life can still find ways to have relationships with other animals. Spending time around other animals may help someone feel comforted or may bring a new sense of purpose to their life. For example, a person can:

  • Spend time around friends who have pets
  • Offer to pet-sit for friends, family, or co-workers who are going out of town
  • Volunteer at a local animal shelter

Following the loss of a pet, it may seem like nothing will ever be the same again. However, growth and healing are possible in the long run. Researchers have identified a phenomenon that they call posttraumatic growth. This occurs when people take a journey of experiencing hardship, struggling, and then coming out stronger on the other side. When people experience posttraumatic growth, they end up feeling that their life is transformed in a positive way, which may lead to a feeling of self-improvement, more meaningful relationships, or a better appreciation of life. Studies have found that people experiencing pet loss can experience posttraumatic growth. This shows that working through grief and loss can be worth it. People who have pets are better for it, even after their pets leave.

Articles authored by Dr. Connor are intended to facilitate awareness about health and wellness matters generally and are not a substitute for professional medical attention or advice from your own healthcare practitioner, which is dependent on your detailed personal medical condition and history. You should always speak with your own qualified healthcare practitioner about any information in any articles you may read here before choosing to act or not act upon such information.