Pets can bring an immense amount of joy, unconditional love and companionship into our lives. Numerous studies have shown that people may live longer, be healthier, and feel happier with a furry companion by their side. Pets teach us about responsibility, the importance of affection, and the beauty of human-animal relationships.
The grief we feel after the loss of a beloved pet is devastating, though. It’s a sad fact of life that the majority of pets don’t live as long as their owners.
Unless your pet is a breed like a macaw or a parrot (both known to live to 50 years or more), you’ll most likely outlive your furry or feathered companion.
Yet the anguish that accompanies the death or loss of a pet is underestimated, trivialised and sometimes even ridiculed in our society. If you’ve lost a pet that you loved, you know just how real the pain is. The grief can feel overwhelming – and last a very long time.
Grief can also accompany the loss of a pet who is still alive. We might no longer be able to care for or house a pet, and need to give them up for adoption. Sometimes when a couple separates, one partner may move away and never see their pet again.
No matter the circumstances, losing a pet to illness, an accident, old age or forced separation is traumatic and deeply distressing.
It’s important to give yourself time to process the sorrow and heartache that stems from the loss of your little companion. Adapting to the loss and coping with your grief takes time. In the same way that counselling can help us come to terms with the loss of a human life, specialist support is vital to the pet grieving process.
Losing a pet: Helping children process their grief
There’s been a lot of research into the bond between children and pets. Some studies suggest that children and adolescents have a relationship with their pets that is similar to siblings. In many cases, children reported feeling closer to their pet than their brother or sister, as there was far less conflict! Teenagers have often had their pets since childhood, and form an intense bond over many years of shared experiences.
For most kids, the loss of a family pet is their first encounter with death and grief. Depending on your child’s age, there are a few ways to discuss your pet’s passing with them – however:
Honesty is always the best approach
Children are incredibly resilient, perceptive and emotionally intelligent. Telling a younger child that your pet ‘has gone to sleep’ or ‘gone away’ may feel like you’re shielding them from being hurt. Yet this obscuring of what happened often results in endless questions about when their pet will wake up or return home, followed by bitter disappointment when the truth is eventually revealed.
Instead, it’s best to give kids a chance to discuss their pet’s passing or loss. They may have questions about your pet’s whereabouts, or the meaning of death. They may need a lot of verbal reassurance and physical affection, as the loss of a pet often triggers fears of losing parents or other family members.
Some families have a funeral or memorial for their pet, which gives all family members an opportunity to remember and celebrate their pet’s life. If your children’s grief is intense and prolonged, specialist child or adolescent counselling can help them process their grief.
Pet loss and complicated grief
It’s difficult enough mourning a pet who has lived a long and happy life. Yet there are other pet loss circumstances that can deepen the complexity of your grief.
When a pet goes missing and you’re not sure whether they are alive or not, in pain or at peace, the grief process is both magnified and unresolved. You might spend weeks, months or years searching for your lost pet, longing for their return.
The grief of a missing pet is complicated by the unwavering hope that they might return to you. There’s a lack of closure to the grieving process, as many people feel guilty mourning their pet when there’s a chance they might still be alive somewhere. Anguish, fear and anger are common grief responses to a missing pet.
The decision to euthanise a sick or injured pet is one of the hardest decisions you may ever have to make. Psychologists call the sadness leading up to a pet’s death anticipatory grief, and it can feel just as devastating as the actual death of a pet.
Disagreement amongst family members about the option of euthanasia may add another layer of complexity and tension to an already distressing situation. Choosing to end a pet’s suffering may create intense feelings of guilt and remorse, but ultimately euthanasia is an act of unconditional love and compassion.
Please note: The following linked content may be upsetting to anyone who has recently lost a pet.
The photo below is from photographer Robyn Arouty’s heartfelt tribute to one dog’s last day with his family and friends. It’s a loving look at the ways we can ease our pet’s suffering at the end, celebrate their life, and provide comfort.
Counselling after the loss of a pet
Talking to family and friends can help us mourn the loss of a pet, but often the pain of grief feels as though it’s too much to bear.
If those around us don’t seem to understand the depth of our sadness, we might repress our feelings of despair and sorrow. This can lead to complex symptoms of anxiety and depression over time, so it’s vitally important to seek help if you’re struggling to come to terms with your loss.
Individual grief counselling can provide a safe, nonjudgmental space for you to privately mourn the loss of your pet, and identify effective ways to cope with distress.
If your partner or other family members are also experiencing deep or complicated grief, specialist family grief counselling can help all members of your tribe to process their feelings about the loss of your family pet.
We may outlive our pets: but the joy, love and wonder they bring can last a lifetime. The grief of losing a pet speaks to the richness and depth of our connection to our furry friends. Seeking support to process the complicated emotions that accompany that loss is an act of strength. It’s important to honour the space pets occupy in our hearts, and the unforgettable role that pets play in our lives.
Grief of losing a pet research resources
Barnard-Nguyen, S., Breit, M., Anderson, K. A., & Nielsen, J. (2016). Pet loss and grief: Identifying at-risk pet owners during the euthanasia process. Anthrozoös, 29(3), 421-430.
Brown, O. K., & Symons, D. K. (2016). “My pet has passed”: Relations of adult attachment styles and current feelings of grief and trauma after the event. Death Studies, 40(4), 247-255.
Cassels, M. T., White, N., Gee, N., & Hughes, C. (2017). One of the family? Measuring early adolescents’ relationships with pets and siblings. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 49, 12-20.
Cordaro, M. (2012). Pet loss and disenfranchised grief: Implications for mental health counselling practice. Journal of Mental Health Counselling, 34(4), 283-294.
McConnell, A. R., Brown, C. M., Shoda, T. M., Stayton, L. E., & Martin, C. E. (2011). Friends with benefits: On the positive consequences of pet ownership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(6), 1239-1252.
Ross, C. B., & Baron-Sorensen, J. (2013). Pet loss and human emotion: A guide to recovery. Taylor & Francis.
Walsh, F. (2009). Human‐animal bonds II: The role of pets in family systems and family therapy. Family Process, 48(4), 481-499.
Wells, D. L. (2009). The effects of animals on human health and well‐being. Journal of Social Issues, 65(3), 523-543.
Marcus Andrews is the founder and director of Life Supports, which was established in 2002. He has extensive professional experience working as a counsellor and family therapist across a broad range of issues. The core component of his role at Life Supports involves the supervision of other counsellors, including secondary consultations. Marcus has worked in many sectors, including private, government, non-profit, health, forensic and community practice.