By JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM
Dogs hold a special place in our hearts and families. We celebrate their birthdays, take extra effort in keeping them happy and healthy, and even lean on them for emotional support when life gets tough.
As much as we love our dogs, we know that, at some point, we will inevitably experience the pain and grief of a beloved dog’s death. Make no mistake about it—grief over a pet’s death is real and no different than grief over the loss of another loved one.
Grief is a powerful and individualized emotion with no timetable. Understanding the grieving process and learning healthy coping strategies can help you manage your own grief over your dog’s death.
The Grieving Process
The grieving process is not necessarily a straight line. It can twist and turn and go in cycles. How we grieve a dog’s death depends on many factors, like our own personalities and the circumstances of the death. Therefore, your grief may look different from someone else’s.
Although everyone experiences grief differently, there are some common emotions associated with grief. Denial, for example, is a common initial emotion soon after a dog’s death. Once reality sets in, profound sadness and grief can bring on many other emotions, including guilt, loneliness, depression and even self-criticism. Grief can also manifest itself through appetite loss, insomnia and obsessive thoughts of the pet. If the death was traumatic, grief may cause nightmares and panic.
Whatever emotions you feel after your dog’s death, remember that they are normal and nothing to be ashamed of. Also, realize that your grief’s intensity will likely decrease over time.
As you grieve, you may ask yourself, “How do I fill this empty feeling? Should I even try to?” Grief’s personal nature means there are no “one size fits all” answers to these questions, or even a timetable for answering them.
Even if there are no clear-cut answers, here are a few healthy coping strategies to consider:
Set aside time to grieve.
Write down how you’re feeling.
Volunteer at a local animal shelter.
Spend quality time with your loved ones.
Contact pet loss hotlines or support groups.
Make a scrapbook of happy times with your dog.
Seek professional counseling to process your grief.
Take care of yourself with a healthy diet, exercise and sleep.
If you have other pets, maintain a normal routine for them, and give them lots of love. If you have children, talk honestly about your dog’s death, keeping the conversation at their comprehension level. Allow them to see you grieve so they know that it’s okay to feel sad or cry.
The question about getting another pet is a common one. Whether you decide to get another dog, and when the time is right to do so, is a personal decision. If you do decide to get another dog, realize that you are not being disloyal to your previous dog. You are simply allowing yourself to love another pet.
Grieving your dog’s death is normal and natural. As you grieve, seek out positive ways to move forward in your life while keeping a special space in your heart for your dog.