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  1. #1
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    Losing a Pet Can Be Hard

    Losing a Pet Can Be Just as Hard as Losing a Loved One
    by John M. Grohol, Psy.D., World of Psychology
    Feb 27, 2019

    Losing a pet is not easy for most people. Pets — or what researchers call companion animals — are most often seen as a fellow member of the family today. It is not surprising then to learn that most people grieve a pet’s passing as much, and sometimes even more, than the passing of a human friend or family member.

    What makes the passing of a pet so hard? How can we better cope with it?

    Some people think that it’s silly to grieve over the loss of a pet. Those people either never had much of an attachment to any pet, never had one growing up as a child, or never really experienced the unconditional love and affection that only an animal can provide.

    Whether they died from illness, an accident, or had to be euthanized, losing a cat, dog, or other beloved animal is a traumatic event. Even if the death was expected due to old age, the loss of their constant companionship is hard to put into words. It’s like a large hole is in your heart, and nothing in this world will ever be good enough to fill it as your lost pet did.

    Having our companion euthanized can be especially difficult, even when we know it’s time and it’s for the best to end their pain and suffering. In a study conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania (Quackenbush & Glickman, 1984), it was discovered that individuals were at the greatest distress and at greatest risk for experiencing extreme grief when having had to euthanize their pet.

    Sadly, many people don’t understand pet loss and the value that pets hold in a person’s life. This can greatly add to a pet owner’s grief. Instead of being comforted and listened to by friends or family (what psychologists refer to as validation), the person is told “It was just a dog (or cat), get over it” or “I’m not sure why you miss that cat (or dog) so much.” These kinds of uninentionally hurtful comments can add to a person’s burden of grief (Messam & Hart, 2019).

    The researchers also note:

    Feeling guilty often is a component of the grief, especially if the owner is conflicted about a decision for euthanasia, or feels that appropriate care was not provided. Grief for an animal, though becoming more socially accepted, remains somewhat disenfranchised. For example, time off work is typically not an option.

    What You Can Do to Feel Better After Pet Loss
    The loss of a furry loved one is rarely easy. But there are some things you can do during and after the loss. It appears that having to euthanize our loved one brings special difficulties. Being actively involved in the decision process of ending a pet’s life, however, can often be helpful, allowing a person to take comfort in their passing.

    While some people report becoming distressed by reminders of their deceased — such as cat/dog toys, bowls, and leashes — others take comfort in them. If they are causing you additional distress by seeing them, put them away somewhere out of sight for a time. You don’t have to get rid of them just yet, but there’s no point in having them bring reminders of painful memories or sadness.

    The Rainbow Bridge is a popular theme in pet loss because it suggests that we will all meet again in the afterlife. This is a source of great comfort, knowing that we can reunite with a loved one after we too have passed.

    Feelings of guilt often accompany euthanasia. It is a heavy burden to bear deciding when to end another being’s life. These feelings are perfectly natural. But please know that you ended your pet’s life because it was their time. You put an end to a time where they were suffering and likely in some sort of pain or distress. There was no hope for recovery or further treatment that would provide both quantity of life, and more importantly, quality of life.

    Your pet appreciated all that you did for them, and all the love you bestowed upon them. They got as much as they gave, and lived a life full of knowing they were appreciated and cared for by you. It was a relationship that benefited them as much as it did you.

    Many pet owners feel as their furry loved ones are like surrogate children. When put into this context, it is completely understandable why the loss of a pet can be so devastating. Losing a source of non-judgmental, unconditional love in a person’s life is usually extremely difficult, no matter the source of that love. While many people don’t understand this, pet owners nearly always do.

    Many people find comfort in memorialization of their pet (Messam & Hart, 2019). These kinds of activities can include having a funeral or wake for the pet (either privately, or with close, trusted friends and family). Some like to create an online photo gallery, print photos, or even create a scrapbook or photo collage. Some find comfort in cremating a pet and keeping their ashes in a memorial box with the engraving of their pet’s name on top.

    Grief coping strategies for pet loss often starts with reading pet loss bereavement articles (whether it be a book or online)(Messam & Hart, 2019). Additional coping strategies include writing letters or blogs to the pet, interacting with other animals (such as at shelters), joining a pet loss support group online or Facebook, and keeping busy with routines, seeing friends, and volunteering. In extreme cases of loss, it is not uncommon for a person to seek out grief therapy from a mental health professional.

    How Long Will My Grief Last?
    Nobody can say for certain how long your grief will last. The feelings of loss and sadness are very individualistic, and so can vary widely. In one small study of 82 people who had lost their pet, “25% took between 3 and 12 months to accept the loss of their pet, 50% between 12 and 19 months, and 25% took between 2 and 6 years, to recover” (Messam & Hart, 2019).

    As you can see, there is a wide gulf in the range of time it can take to fully recover from losing your pet. This is a reminder that grief takes as long as it takes to fully experience. There is nothing you can do to speed up the process, or feel it more fully. It comes when it comes and lasts as long as it needs to.

    You will get over the loss of your pet. But you will never forget the love and times you shared together. Someday, you may even feel ready to open your heart up again to another furry or feathered friend. Our hearts are large enough to welcome much love into our lives, throughout our lives.

    I hope your burden during this trying time is not too heavy. Please remember and known, you are not alone and you will get through this.

    Further reading



    References

    • Messam, LLM & Hart, LA. (2019). Persons Experiencing Prolonged Grief After the Loss of a Pet. In Clinician’s Guide to Treating Companion Animal Issues, 267-280.
    • Quackenbush, J. E., & Glickman, L. (1984). Helping people adjust to the death of a pet. Health
    • and Social Work, 9, 42–48.

  2. #2
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    Re: Losing a Pet Can Be Hard

    Re: euthanasia

    We had to euthanize three of our old pets within a one year period. As difficult as it was though, I felt even worse for the techs and vets who have to euthanize animals on a regular basis.
    “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I'll meet you there.” ~ Rumi

  3. #3
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    Re: Losing a Pet Can Be Hard

    Coping with Guilt
    UF Small Animal Hospital, College of Veterinary Medicine

    Although the specific reason for feelings of guilt differ from person to person, almost everyone feels some guilt after the death of a pet. Most often, we believe we had more control over the situation than we actually did, and this is the cause of our guilt.

    You might be thinking “I could have saved him if only I would have…,” or, you might be telling yourself things like “I should have picked up on my cat’s symptoms earlier;” “I should have gotten my horse to the vet sooner;” “I shouldn’t have let my dog eat so much;” or “I shouldn’t have given my bird that new toy.”

    It is a natural reaction to grieve to try and make sense of why an animal dies, and sometimes we choose to put the blame on ourselves, even when we did everything possible to help our animals survive. Most people eventually realize that the death of their pet was outside of their power and that they were in fact a very positive part of their pet’s life.

    In cases where a pet died as a result of an accident where a person who loved them was directly involved, guilt can (but does not have to) be overwhelming. However, it can still be worked through.

    Guilt can hinder the grieving process and prevent healing from occurring. Therefore, it is vitally important for you to acknowledge your feelings of guilt, work through them, learn from the experience, and then move forward. Following are some thoughts on how you might handle your feelings of guilt in a healthy way.

    If Your Pet Died From an Accident
    Do not focus on only one event that led to your pet’s death. Instead, think of those events as a puzzle for which your part was one piece. For example, suppose you let your dog out in the yard and she got outside of the fence and was hit by a car. You might think “If only I wouldn’t have let her out when I didn’t have time to be outside with her.” Perhaps you play that over and over in your mind and have convinced yourself that you are totally to blame for what happened. Try breaking the events down so you have a better understanding of your role. For example, did you have control over something attracting your dog’s attention so that she wanted outside of the fence? Did you have control over the fact that just at the time when she was out a car was coming? Or, that the person driving the car did not see her in time or was unable to avoid hitting her? Did you have any control over the extent of her injuries? You can apply this type of thinking to any situation where an accident was involved and hopefully you will begin to see that many events occurred that led to your pet’s death.

    Focus on your intent. Remember the love you had for your pet and that your actions were never done with intent to harm. Had you known what the outcome was going to be, would you have acted differently? We feel guilty after we know what happened and look back on the event. But when we are making decisions and doing things for our pets, our actions are based on the fact that we care about our pets. We cannot see into the future and know what is going to happen.

    Quality of Life. Remember that with anything we do there always is some risk involved. If we kept our pets totally protected at all times minimizing much of the potential for harm or accidents (we can never keep them totally out of harms way), what kind of quality of life would they have? A bird who is always inside the protection of a cage might live more years, but is that bird as happy as one who enjoys the freedom of knowing about life outside of her cage? Most pets enjoy running, jumping, and interacting with people and nature and need these types of experiences to maintain good physical and mental health. This in no way gives us the right to be careless with our pets but rather is an acknowledgement that accidents do happen, even when we are trying to be the best guardians possible for our pets.

    Express How You are Feeling to Your Pet. Many people find it helpful to tell their pets what it is they feel guilty about and to ask their pets for forgiveness. This also can be done by writing a letter to your pet. Some find it helpful to take this a step beyond their own feelings and to write themselves a response from their pet. This can help you to realize that your pet would not want you to spend your time feeling guilty over what happened. Even if you don’t believe your pet can hear you, it is an opportunity to express your feelings and to get some of the pain outside of yourself.

    General Feelings of Guilt

    Guilt sometimes results from a need to “make sense” of death or to answer the question “why did this happen?” If there is no obvious reason for the death or when a pet dies unexpectedly, people sometimes blame themselves in an effort to answer the question “why?” They will say things like “I should have known something was wrong,” or “I didn’t take good enough care of my pet.” Understand that sometimes we never know exactly what happened that leads to a pet’s death and not all illnesses are able to be diagnosed. This does not mean that anyone is to blame; it merely indicates that the cause of death or the illness was not known.

    Talk to Your Veterinarian. Sometimes people feel guilty as a result of not understanding the events or illness that lead to a pet’s death. Asking your veterinarian for clarification on the cause of death can be helpful.
    “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I'll meet you there.” ~ Rumi

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