Grief: Healthy Pet/Happy Pet 17

By: Dr. Amanda Thomas

As a veterinarian and a caregiver to both people and pets, we often experience one of the most difficult situations a person can go through – the loss and the grief over a pet that has been a significant, long term companion and friend. We have learned about and understand the relationships people have with their pets, and know that this is one of the most profound and deep friendships of their lives. The bond someone has with their pet is more significant and heartfelt than most of their other relationships.

We will all experience grief in our lifetime; the internal thoughts and feelings we have when someone dies and the subsequent burden we carry with us inside. Every day in the veterinary clinic we encounter clients who are moving through the many stages of grief. Most people vacillate back and forth between the different stages of grief and mourning;

Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance

Some linger longer than others in grief, some get stuck in one stage, and others move through the loss slowly, sometimes over many years. The impact of losing a pet can be devastating and debilitating.

Veterinarians empathize with people who are grieving as we are often feeling similar emotions about these pets we have also grown to know and love.

The veterinary staff deals with death and dying six-times more than their medical counterparts because our patients live shorter lives. All of us move past our own emotions in order to help others during this emotional time.

Pet owners should feel at ease in their veterinary clinic to express their feelings and never feel that their grief and mourning are dismissed or discounted. The loss of a pet may be the most genuine loss of a person’s life. People will comment that it is harder to say goodbye to their pet than it has been to lose a family member.

Alan Wolfelt, PhD., wrote a book entitled When Your Pet Dies: A Guide to Mourning, Remembering and Healing, which includes a depiction of the nature of our relationships with our pets and other factors that affect how a person feels when they have to let go. It is an excellent book to read if you have been affected by the loss of a pet and are seeking a better understanding of your feelings, or a need to get past the grief.

Many factors affect a person’s ability to work through their grief. There will always be unresolved feelings and emotions when a pet owners re-live experiences and times during their life when they felt comforted by their pet. Perhaps they feel that their pet is the only other being that understands and knows them. It’s natural for someone to experience shock, disbelief, disorganization, forgetfulness, physical symptoms, explosive emotions, depression, guilt, and regret.

It is important for every pet owner to understand that mourning the loss of a pet is normal and that it may take a long time to work through the grief.

The Pet Lover’s Code:

  • You have the right to grieve the death of a pet
  • You have the right to talk about your grief
  • You have the right to feel a variety of emotions
  • You have the right to be tolerant of your physical and emotional limits
  • You have the right to experience “grief bursts”
  • You have the right to make use of a ritual
  • You have the right to embrace your spirituality
  • You have the right to search for meaning
  • You have the right to treasure your memories
  • You have the right to move toward your grief and healing.

There are people and friends that care about you, and who cared about your pet in his or her lifetime who want to help you, including your veterinary team.

We know how painful this time can be.

We also know the joy and love on a person’s face when they walk back through that clinic door when they have “rescued” a new friend….