“Help! My dog was hit by a car and is gone. I feel so guilty,” Jennifer confessed. I took a deep breath and exhaled, “I’m so sorry, Jen.” Then I invited her to tell me all about Duke’s life—and death. Together, we laughed, cried, and honored her four-legged best friend. Because it’s tough to grieve alone.
As an animal chaplain, I have these conversations often. This is no surprise since over 67 percent of households in the United States―57 percent of homes worldwide―include a species other than human. Indeed, most of us will at some point experience the loss of an animal we love dearly.
While I have yet to find a magic wand to send the pain of pet loss away, some practices can make it easier to bear. The first is letting go of unhelpful self-talk and messages from others. The second is getting support. And the third is all about love.
Why Pet Loss Matters
is a natural and normal reaction to loss, manifesting in emotional, physical, cognitive, and spiritual ways. After the death of a companion animal, sadness, grief, or guilt often appear. These emotions can significantly impact our lives. In fact, one study found that 93 percent of humans reported disruption in daily functioning, such as trouble sleeping or loss of appetite, after losing an animal. Over 50 percent surveyed had reduced their social activities, and 45 percent had job-related difficulties. Other studies have documented people’s loss of motivation as well as increased stress, anxiety, worry, and depression. To add insult to injury, animal death tends to resurface our memories of past bereavements and losses.
A Practice for Handling the Pain of Loss
People often describe their grief based on how it wreaks havoc in their lives: I can’t function. I can’t think straight. My heart hurts. All I can do is cry. I’m never prepared for when it hits; grief floods me.
How we respond to grief is influenced by the messages we receive from the people around us. Some people may “get it.” These people can offer a safe place for us to share what we are feeling, aiding our recovery. Other folks may suggest you “get over it.” This can lead to what we refer to as disenfranchised grief, making the loss hurt even more.
Sometimes, the statements that block us from coping are ones we create ourselves. If you find yourself ruminating or feeling stuck in grief, try this practice
- Grab some tissues, paper, and a pen.
- Find a safe, cozy place where you can be exactly as you are, without feeling the need to appear okay for others.
- Take a few deep breaths.
- Close your eyes if you feel comfortable; if not, just gaze softly on something and let your vision fuzz up a bit.
- Sit for 2-3 minutes, noticing your breaths.
- Bring to mind the animal you have lost.
- Write down all the thoughts that come to mind. Just keep writing until you feel complete.
- Now, look at what you wrote. Notice if your writing includes the words must, have to, can’t, should, or other imperatives.
- I have to let go.
- It must have been my fault.
- I should have…
- I have to move on.
- I have to be strong.
- If you are having these thoughts, acknowledge that you do not have to do anything. What you are feeling is natural and normal.
- Notice any statements from others that invalidate your experience.
- “It’s just a dog.”
- “Don’t feel bad. Get your mind on something else.”
- “Time heals all wounds.”
- Acknowledge that while these people are trying to be helpful, their words may not be. Have compassion for them in their concern for you, and at the same time realize that you do not need to take these statements as true.
- Welcome any feelings that come, rather than try to suppress them. Speak to these emotions out loud. “Welcome, sadness. Welcome, anger. Welcome, tears…”
- Ask Spirit, God, Goddess, Higher Power—by whatever name or concept you use—to enter into these emotions with you. Support me in my sadness. Be with me in my anger.
- Spend a few moments observing how reaching outside of yourself feels.
- Notice the place—or places—in your body that hold the sensations of loss.
- Now, welcome healing into your body and thoughts. Say aloud: “Welcome, healing.”
- Sit for a few more minutes, returning to following your breaths.
You may find you need to repeat this exercise frequently throughout the day. Grief, after all, is not a one-and-done.
To truly survive animal loss, you will likely need a supportive community—and professional support may also be helpful. Research suggests that both talking about our pet’s death and social support are essential to the grieving process. While speaking with supportive friends and family is one piece of the puzzle, talking with a professional can also be incredibly beneficial. Consider:
It’s often said that grief is "love with nowhere to go.” Rather than thinking we need to move on, get past the pain, or stop feeling grief, we often just need to find a place to put all that love we once showered on our pets when they were alive.
One way to do this is to continue our bonds with the animal. Because while we may not know the precise details of what happens after bodily death, we can still cultivate spiritual connections to those who have passed on. Talk to your passed-on furry friend. Write them love poems. Make a small altar to honor their life.
In addition, consider showering love on the other animals you encounter—human and nonhuman alike. Hug your friends. Talk to wildlife. Meditate with butterflies. Radiate love to all creatures, always.
For further reflection try this ritual for honoring the loss of a human or animal companion.