Our pets are very important members of our families. As pet parents, the death of a beloved furry friend can be devastating. Being prepared and learning coping skills can help you deal with your loss.
Why is the Loss of a Pet So Difficult?
Many pet parents who have experienced the loss of a pet compare it to losing a human loved one. Some even believe it to be worse. Why is that?
We don’t call them our “fur babies” for nothing. They are...our babies. Most of us have an intense bond and an unconditional love for our pets, just as they have with us.
We spend as much time with them as we can, laughing, playing, exercising, or just walking them around the block. We love and care for them all of their lives, just like parents do human children.
They depend on us and we depend on them. So, why wouldn’t we feel a devastating loss when they are with us no longer?
It’s quite natural for the death of an animal companion to be overwhelming. It’s painful.
The emotions that run through our minds are many, like guilt, sadness, anger, and hopelessness. We may even feel embarrassed or ashamed having such intense feelings over the death of a pet, especially if our grief seems to exceed that which we have when a human passes away.
Rest assured you are not the only one who feels all these confusing and engulfing emotions. In fact, most pet parents tend to experience one of all of the feelings above.
Many feel there is something wrong with them and that they are “odd”, “weird”, or “different” because they do. But in reality, it is completely normal to grieve deeply and everyone does that in their own individual way.
Preparing for the Death of a Pet
Although nothing can truly prepare us for the death of our furry friends, we must realize the time will come and we will never, ever be ready for it when it does.
Death, be it of a human or a pet, never waits for an appropriate time to strike. If it did, there would never be such a time. That’s why it’s wise (not pleasant, but wise) to prepare our hearts, little by little along the way.
Even when our pets are young, we have to realize that dogs and cats simply don’t live as long as humans. We can treasure the time we have with them though.
If your dog is getting on up in years or has a serious illness, like cancer, it’s time to begin preparing for him to pass on, just as you would need to if it were a human friend or family member.
It takes time and it’s difficult but accepting the inescapable will help you through the process.
You may even want to make decisions now, while your pet is still alive, even if he’s healthy. What will you do if he gets chronically ill or so old he’s not able to get around good and is in pain?
When he does pass, what are the memories you’d cherish the most? If possible, do more of those things and while you are preparing for the day he won’t be around, be sure to enjoy the time that he is.
It was almost Christmas. Ellie was preparing to get through her second holiday season without her beloved husband who she had lost just a year and a half ago.
Having grandchildren around helped the grief and loneliness. In fact, it was the only way she was working through it.
She was on her way back from a Christmas program at the elementary school, her car loaded with her grandchild, just the way she liked it to be.
Before taking the kids on home, she stopped by her house to give the children a bathroom break. The boys, ages 11 and 8, ran inside. By the time Ellie got in, the youngest was in tears.
“I think something’s wrong with Emma,” he sobbed.
Sure enough, Ellie’s Maltipoo was lying beside the fireplace, not moving. She had passed away.
Although Ellie knew Emma was growing old, she hadn’t really prepared herself, or her grandchildren, for the inevitable passing. After all, she was still working through the loss of her husband just as the children were still mourning the death of their grandfather.
Emma was dear to her husband’s heart which made it even more difficult. She had even faithfully laid on his lap as he took his final breath.
Just days before Christmas, Ellie faced not only yet another grieving process, but important decisions to make as well. Her grandchildren were torn up over Emma just as she was. What could she do to deal with the pain and help the children do the same?
Then...it hit her. Just that past spring, she, her grandchildren and a handful of close family members had planted her husband’s ashes in an apple tree in her backyard.
“What do you kids think about burying Emma next to Pop’s tree?” she asked them.
With teary eyes, they all unanimously agreed it was a great idea.
A day was set aside for the ceremony. Each child recalled a memory about Emma. Ellie talked about how Pops and Emma had a special bond and how Pops loved her so.
The oldest grandson bravely grabbed a shovel and dug a grave. Emma’s makeshift casket was lovingly placed inside and the children took turns shoveling dirt back over the hole.
Tears were cried and tears were dried. It was a sorrowful day for all. But...it was healing. And best of all, a grandmother had taught her grandchildren a life lesson on dealing with grief.
At the end of the day, the kids were smiling, knowing they had taken part in something very good. Pops and Emma were together again.
7 Steps to Help Cope When the Day Comes
Give Yourself Permission to Feel the Pain.
In our society, we often hear statements like, “don’t cry”. While the advice is meant to be helpful, it’s not.
Allowing yourself to experience the emotions of sorrow, pain, and emptiness are vital.
You won’t be able to go through the grieving process until you give yourself permission to feel, cry, scream, yell...whatever it is you need to do, do it.
Talk About It.
Talking is therapy. You may be afraid to talk about the loss of your pet for fear that others won’t understand.
You’re right that some won’t but most pet parents and animal lovers have either been through the death of a beloved four-legged friend or can at least sympathize by putting themselves in your place.
It’s wise to give thought to exactly who you want to share your feelings with but, by all means, find someone even if it’s a veterinarian or counselor.
Confront Feelings Head On
It’s normal to feel guilty when your pet passes away. “If only I would have...” If the passing was due to you putting your pet to sleep, you may feel bad about that too.
Or, may feel angry which is natural as well. “She was so young...” Any emotion that comes your way is alright to feel but then, the time will come to work through it.
Address the emotions by feeling them and facing them. You’ll begin to see things more clearly once you admit how you feel and determine to deal with those feelings.
It is then you’ll be able to realize you had your cat put down because she was in pain and it’s alright. Or that yes, your dog was taken way too early but at least you had the few years you did with him.
By confronting your feelings rather than skirting around them, true healing can begin.
Don’t Rush the Process
“Get over it!” is a common remark in our society. We have instant everything - drive-thru fast food that takes only minutes to get, internet that zooms from one site to the next in a flash, just about everything is done with quickness.
Grief...is not. Be careful not to rush yourself when working with your emotions or you’ll only go around it, not through it. Take all the time you need as long as you are pushing onward.
Cry when you feel like it. It’s ok. He’d cry too if you were the one who passed. If you are angry, get a punching bag and beat on it. Take a jog and let off some steam.
Whatever it is you are going through emotionally, bring it into the present and feel it. Just don’t get stuck there. Move on when the time is right.
Having a memorial service is comforting and is a thoughtful way to honor your pet. If you have children, it is helpful for them to take part in the ceremony as well if they are old enough to.
There are no set rules so you can be as creative as you’d like. If children are involved, let them help with the planning. Say “goodbye” in your own unique way and let others do the same.
Perhaps you will opt for a backyard ceremony and bury your beloved pet by his favorite tree. Or, maybe you have had your cat cremated and would like to spread some ashes on her favorite sandbox.
Invite those who were close to your pet, even his pet friends. Spend the day in his honor however your heart leads. The sky is the limit.
The most important things are that you honor your furry friend and bring about some closure.
Leaving a Legacy
Sometimes, it’s good to have a cause so you can rest easy knowing your pet did not live in vain.
Was your dog especially loving with children? Donate to a children’s charity in his name. Was he a rescue dog or cat?
You could set up a fund for friends and family to give to the shelter in his honor. Maybe taking in a stray cat pulls your heartstrings because your cat wandered up to you one day and never left.
Or, maybe you will want to do something indirectly. Commit to writing a book or a poem about your pet. Draw or paint a picture of your dog. Set aside one hour a day to work in the garden your cat loved.
Knowing that something good came from such a sad and difficult thing is helpful and healing.
Consider a Memorial
There are many options pet parents have who would like to have a memorial in honor of their pet. If your pet is buried, you can get a marker, much like human grave markers.
If he was cremated, there are a myriad of urns to choose from that you can place on your mantel in remembrance. You can also look into some of the going memorial trends such as having his ashes inside a specially made glass marble or pendant.
You can even have his ashes infused in a tree to plant. Some even dedicate a bench at the dog park for their dearly deceased.
Memorials are special because although time will pass and things will get easier for you, forgetting the furry one you loved so is never part of the process. Embracing their memory is.
New Burial Options in the News
When grief strikes, it is comforting for some to know that they will, one day, be buried alongside their lost loved one.
That’s why so many people buy burial plots for the entire family. But what about those who consider their pet to be part of their family?
The laws vary from state to state but until recently, most have forbidden the burial of any pet in a human cemetery. Change is trending though.
New York has made some changes. They used to have the same law as New Jersey which forbids the burial of a pet’s body in a human cemetery but allowed a human’s ashes to be buried next to his pet in a pet cemetery.
It was Pennsylvania that first pioneered the pack, passing a law in 2006 which allowed three sections to be in a graveyard, one for animals, one for humans, and one where both could rest together.
Virginia followed suit in 2014. The law states that the sections of the cemetery must be clearly marked.
Florida law simply states that the practice of a human being buried alongside his pet is not forbidden.
New York is now making pets being buried alongside their human legal. The regulations that prevented such are being rolled back and cemeteries now have the option to honor the wishes of humans who ask to be buried next to their pets.
It is usually part of the rule that the human must have formally requested being buried next to their pet prior to their death. A relative or friend can’t just step in and make the request.
People are first required to acquire written permission directly from the cemetery and even then, the only cemeteries that qualify are those that are run by the state and are not for profit. Those run by religious organizations are exempt as well.
There are often times other specifications too like the fact that cemeteries cannot advertise they allow pets and humans to be buried together nor can a fee be charged for such.
Sometimes, when there is no law forbidding it (and, sometimes even when it was illegal), an urn containing a dog’s ashes has been placed in a pet parent’s casket without making mention in any public manner that it has been done, according to R. Eric Sawyer who has been a funeral director in Texas for over thirty years.
He also explained that some people adamantly oppose pets, in any form or fashion, being in a cemetery where their loved one is buried.
While many states still strictly forbid the practice of pet and human sharing of gravesites, the way things are moving, it may not be long before more, and maybe even all, realize and embrace the fact that when it comes to loving our pets, even death can’t stand in the way.
If you live in a state where being buried with your pet is legal and your pet has passed, you too might find solace in making arrangements to be together again in your final resting place.
A quick search online can provide more information for you about where your state stands in the matter. It’s also a good idea to consult with an attorney on the matter if you are really serious about it.
The Day Will Come...
As the healing process progresses and time plays its part as well, one day, out of nowhere, you’ll realize...you can talk about it without crying.
You can even laugh at how your pup used to put on a show for you when you came home for work or giggle about the time your cat got stuck in a box.
You can recall the good times you spent hiking or even when you came home one day to find the roll of toilet paper strewn throughout the house. Or, when you discovered a pile of socks behind the couch your kitten had been swiping.
It is then that you can relive all those precious times and realize...your pet never really left at all. For there in your heart, he will always remain.
Resources for Pet Loss Grief
If you are having a difficult time grieving the loss of your pet, there are resources available that can help you through the process. Here are a few of them:
Support Groups and Hotlines
Grief Healing is a website that has a plethora of support group phone numbers listed. The ASPCA, Iams Pet Loss Support Center and Hotline, and a hotline manned by veterinarian students at Cornell University are among the resources on the list.
APLB (The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement) is a wonderful site staffed by compassionate, professionally trained volunteers that offer one-on-one counseling, chat rooms, forums, and helpful information.
Pet Loss Support Page is another site that is available to help you get through the pain of your loss. There are articles full of helpful advice as well as a list of resources available. You’ll also find a good collection of reputable pet memorial items such as diamonds, glass art, and jewelry.
The Argus Institute is a branch of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Colorado State University lovingly provides links to resources for pet loss grief that are excellent for adults and children as well. They passionately offer their own personal understanding and support for they too are animal lovers.
“Cold Noses at the Pearly Gates” by Gary Kurtz is an encouraging book* about the loss of a pet that embraces the belief that all pets do, indeed, go to heaven.
The heartbreaking experience of the death of a pet is acknowledged and sympathized with in this fine work which is helpful for those who are going through such emotions.
Kurtz is a biblical scholar who sets out to prove that dogs, cats, and all creatures great and small are waiting at the Pearly Gates for their beloved humans.
“The Loss of a Pet: A Guide to Coping with the Grieving Process When a Pet Dies” by Wallace Sife, PhD
This amazing book has helped many grieving pet parent in their bereavement. Along with validating the grief of losing a pet, this masterpiece also explores the possibility of an afterlife for pets and their humans.
“Heart Dog” by Roxanne Hawn is a work of love that reaches out to those who have lost a pet, especially a “soul mate pet”. This book* explains how any pet loss is difficult but there are some bonds between humans and pets that are intensely strong.
When death separates those who have such a bond, the grief is almost too much to bear. But, with the information in this helpful book, it is possible to begin to work through the pain and move forward.
If you are going through the loss of a pet, it’s important to know that you are not alone. There are many who are presently feeling the same pain or have in the past.
It’s also helpful to know that there is nothing trivial about grieving the loss of your beloved dog, cat, fish, or any other living creature you loved.
The many websites, forums, hotlines, and books available for grieving pet parents are all proof of the fact that it is natural to feel intense sorrow. Don’t hesitate to reach out for help - that’s what it is there for.
* Links for crate sizes will bring you to the most appropriate Amazon page.