Pet owners don’t always like to think about it, but the death of a special pet is something that most of us will experience at some point in our lives. When this sad time comes, it’s normal to feel a wave of emotions that you’re totally unprepared for. Initial feelings of numbness, shock, denial and extreme sadness are very common. This is often followed by loneliness and sometimes even anger or guilt, especially when a pet has been put to sleep.
It can be hard to know how to deal with these intense and usually unexpected feelings. Family and friends might not always understand this kind of emotional response to the death of a pet. They might struggle to offer the support you need during the grieving process, making it an especially difficult and lonely experience. But often just a few kind words and condolences from the people around you can make all the difference. So if someone you know loses a pet, it’s always nice to show them that you care.
For anyone trying to cope with this loss, the best people to turn to are often those who have felt the special connection between pet and owner for themselves. Other pet owners know what it’s like to see a pet as an important part of the family, and they may even have personal experience of pet bereavement. It can be very helpful and reassuring to talk to people who have been in a similar situation or who understand this grief. That’s why some animal charities now provide special services for anyone who is mourning the death of a pet.
A great example is the Blue Cross. They run a free and confidential phone line that connects bereaved pet owners with volunteers who are willing to listen and offer emotional support, so you don’t have to go through this alone. You can contact the Blue Cross Pet Bereavement Support Service on 0800 096 6606, or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org if you find it easier to write down your feelings. The Blue Cross website also has lots of useful printed resources for coping with pet bereavement.
If other members of your family have been affected by the loss as well, it’s also a good idea to discuss your feelings with them. That way, you can comfort and support each other. Children form particularly strong bonds with family pets and may feel a loss very keenly. Depending on their age, they may find death difficult to understand, so it’s important to talk to them honestly about it, at a level that they’re able to cope with.
“We recently lost our much-loved family guinea pig, Ivy. It was a shock for all of us, but it was especially sad for my daughter, age 7. Ivy was her first pet and she loved to give her cuddles and took her responsibility to care for her very seriously. When I discovered that Ivy had died whilst Holly was at school, I realized that I would have to break the news to her and that I would need to think carefully about what to say. In the end I sat down with Holly and explained that I had some bad news and went on to tell her very briefly that Ivy had died. Through her tears she asked me why it had happened and I tried to explain simply that Ivy had been a very old guinea pig, and that when animals are old their bodies get tired and eventually stop working. I made sure to say that it was not her fault: Holly had always looked after Ivy very well and she had definitely been a happy pet. I allowed Holly to decide what would happen next and she decided that she would like to bury Ivy in the garden and decorate the grave with flowers. Over the first few weeks after Ivy died, Holly would occasionally go quiet and then she would say how much she missed Ivy. When this happened we had a cuddle and talked about how it is OK to be sad when someone you love goes away, and that it’s OK to miss them, but that it’s good to remember the fun you had with them too. We like to remember how much Ivy loved eating strawberries, and how funny she looked with strawberry juice running down her chin! That makes us both smile, even when we’re sad.”
Thinking about happy memories of a departed pet can be a vital part of the emotional healing process. You may also find that honouring your loyal companion with a peaceful final resting place can help you to find some closure. Pet memorials can provide an important site of remembrance, or it may be comforting to visit somewhere with special significance for you and your pet, such as a favourite walk.
It is important not to try to rush the grieving process – the death of a pet is often very distressing, and you should allow yourself as long as you need to recover.
When the time is right, you might also want to consider getting a new pet. Obviously a beloved pet can never be replaced, but it can be comforting to have a new friend to keep you company, especially if you live alone. Perhaps you have a space in your heart for another animal in need of a loving home. Some of our recent zooplus charity partners – the Gloucestershire Animal Welfare Association, Oakwood Dog Rescue, Camp Nibble and the Society for Abandoned Animals – are all involved in rehoming rescued pets and would be a great place to find another furry companion.