We continue our preparation for National Pet Memorial Day this September 13th with an article originally published by us several years ago but the wisdom and ideas within are just as applicable today.
The death of a pet is often painful to the owner who faces both the loss of a companion and the process of dealing with the grief following that companion's passing. People can become extremely attached to their pets, as often an animal is a person's most constant companion, and the level of an individual's attachment to their pet will play a large role in how much sadness they experience when it dies.
It is a fact that most of the animals we keep as pets have much shorter average lifespans than humans. Rodents like gerbils and hamsters average around two years; rabbits and guinea pigs live around seven years. Cats will on average live to around 15. Dogs are a bit trickier because there are so many breeds, but the overall average is thought to be around 13, with small breeds usually outliving large ones by a significant margin. Compare all of this to a life expectancy of around 78 years for people in the US and it is easy to see how likely it is, even if both live a full life, for a pet owner to have to deal with the loss of a pet.
It is normal for a person to go through stages of grief, including denial, bargaining, anger, depression and acceptance. People may also feel guilt because they think they have in some way let their animal down. Not everyone experiences all of these, nor at the same pace or intensity. Grieving is very personal and will differ from person to person, but the process is the same whether it is over a person or an animal. Having time to prepare for a pet's death can mean less grief at the time of its passing, because you can mentally and emotionally prepare yourself. Some suggestions:
- If possible, take photos or video before your pet passes
- Say goodbye, directly to your pet if possible, and tell your pet how you feel or felt about him
- Let yourself grieve
- Have a memorial service
- Reminisce, either by yourself or with friends or family who knew your pet
- Be honest both with yourself and with children. Often, the passing of a family pet is the first experience children have with the death of a loved one. If you must euthanize your pet, say the animal “died” rather than it was “put to sleep” when talking about it with a child
- Make a donation to charity in the name of or in memory of your pet
- Give yourself as much time as you need to complete the grieving process, and avoid getting a new pet before the process is done. Don't compare a new pet to the deceased one—it's not fair to you or the new animal
The amount of grief and time of mourning for an individual depends on the level of attachment and the type of relationship they had with their pet, as well as the nature of its death. The process usually takes a few weeks to a few months. Talking through it with friends or family members can be very helpful. However, if your grief is enduring enough that it interferes with regular life for more than a few weeks, you may want to seek help from a grief counselor. There is an Ann Arbor organization called The Kite Network that is “committed to providing peer support for any loss” and a national organization, the Delta Society, that specializes in the loss of animal companions.
You need to grieve before the healing process can begin, but remember to take care of yourself at the same time. Eat well, get enough sleep, and exercise, which releases endorphins that make you feel good. Losing a pet hurts, but fortunately people are equipped to cope with it.
—Janet Figarra, DVM