Man’s Best Friend: 5 Considerations for Grieving the Loss of a Pet

Two weeks ago my husband was playing with our dog, Amos, when he felt a lump – a huge lump – on his side.

When I say huge, I mean a humongous golf-ball sized lump that came out of nowhere. Seriously, nowhere; a few days before there was nothing and then suddenly there’s this enormous lump.  Now, I’ll admit Amos is a lumpy dog.  He’s had his fair share of lumps in the past and every time I’ve spiraled into a panic convinced it is cancer.  But until now every lump has been benign; the result ofthis is amosallergic reactions and fatty tumors, but never the dreaded C word.

When this lump arrived, bigger and faster than ever, I did what any normal, red-blooded American does: I took to Google.  But, in an odd twist of events, everything I found online was so promising and reassuring – something that appears and grows that large that quickly probably isn’t cancer.  Phew!

Between the past benign lumps and the ‘good news’ I received care from Google, I was disturbingly calm.  We went to the vet in the morning, they aspirated the lump, and then we waited.  It was a calm wait, something that felt totally foreign.  It would be fine, I figured.  It always is.  Besides, Google said so and we all know everything on the Internet is true.

Then the vet called and all of a sudden my calm shattered . . . cancer.  The details were fuzzy – they didn’t have enough cells to know the type for sure – one possibility was really bad – the other not so bad.  The long and short was that they needed to remove the lump and perform a biopsy to know for sure.  The irony was not lost on me.  All that anxiety all those other times had been for nothing and then the one time I should have been anxious, the one time it would have been warranted, nothing.  I had been totally calm, no constant sense of dread or chronic pit in my stomach.  Clearly, this is evidence that my anxiety and worry is the only thing protecting me and my loved one’s from imminent death and/or cancer.

A few days later we took Amos to have the lump removed and we brought him home with a 7 inch stitched incision.  Then we waiting again for results.  Finally we received a voicemail: Hemangiopericytoma.  It was the best of all possible bad news.  The best-case-cancer-scenario; if you can ever put ‘cancer’ and ‘good news’ in the same sentence.   The whole tumor was removed with clean margins and this type of cancer has a low rate of recurrence.  No need for puppy chemo or radiation or tough treatment decisions.

When we were finally able to heave a sigh of relief, my husband, who had outwardly been holding it together far better than I had been, said to me, “I really thought the dog was going to die”.  He confessed that he had left work early several days during the week because he couldn’t concentrate and wanted to spend as much time as he could with dog.

My mind flashed back to a woman who approached us after we spoke at a grief summit several months ago; a grief professional who had lost her husband several years before.  She stopped us to say that her dog had recently died and that she was struggling immensely, that the grief seemed even worse than when she had lost her husband.  Her dog had been her comfort and her companion after her husband’s death and now she was left to grieve all alone.

Now, some of you out there are reading this and saying to yourself…these must be crazy dog people.  You know, the pet owners who let their dog sit at the dinner table and keep photos of them in their wallets.   But I assure you, we are normal pet owners – our dog doesn’t even sleep in our bed, much less sit at the dinner table. You have to understand, for many people pets are like family and it hurts to see them suffering and we grieve when they die.

For as many people who don’t get it, there are just as many who do, but this divide poses a challenge when a pet is ill, lost, or dies.  On the one hand there are those people who understand the depths of the loss, on the other there are those who think you are crazy.  We’ve never written about the illness or death of a pet here, in part because there are other people who are already doing it so well.  Just the same, we are going to share a few thoughts about the loss of a pet.  If you’re struggling with this type of loss we suggest you go check out our friend Marty over at the Grief Healing Blog for many great articles on pet loss.

Five Considerations for Those Grieving the Loss of a Pet

1.  Some people just won’t “get” it. They are not worth arguing with. These people will not be particularly supportive, and you will not turn them in to a pet person or someone who understands pet loss.  Some people will get it. Focus on those people! You will have friends who understand the pain that comes with pet loss.  Those are the people you want to turn to, not the friend who is saying things like, “well you still have another cat, right?”  Remember what we say about utilizing your support system effectively and just let it go when someone doesn’t understand.

2.  Your grief is normal, you are not crazy! Because pet loss isn’t typically acknowledged as significant, it can make us feel abnormal when the pain is so devastating. But the pain is absolutely normal and you have the right to grieve.  Consider some of the reasons why pet loss is so difficult:

  • Your pet is with you every day, for hours a day. I spend more time with my dog than my mom, my sister, or my best friends.
  • People feel protective of their pets. It is the owners job to take care of an animal.  When they die, despite all the rationality in the world, it can be hard not to feel a sense of failure.
  • Pets love unconditionally. Who else do you accepts you 100% for who you are and loves you no matter what?
  • Many times a pet is there to help you through other losses or hardship: they are a comfort when the world is turned upside down and when you feel afraid, sad or alone.  When a pet has always been your comfort in times of pain, it’s hard to know where to turn when you now must grieve for the pet.
  • Pets are companions to our loved ones, especially children. Losing a pet can often mean seeing children in the household suffer and grieve, often for the first time.  In addition to your own pain, you also have the pain of seeing your child grieve.

3.  Create a grave marker and/or have a memorial. This does not have to be a big display if you don’t want it to be; I am not suggesting you put it in the paper.  I am suggesting you decide on something small to do, either by yourself or with family and close friends.  If you are burying your animal and plan to have a little stone or marker, you may wish to say a few words.  If your pet was cremated you may wish to have a box with the ashes and photo of the pet, and say a few words when you display it.  You may also wish to spread the ashes at a location your pet loved – a park, trail, place to swim, etc.  Rituals are important whether you have lost a pet or a family member.

4.  There will be some especially difficult times: when you first get home from work and your pet is not there to greet you; first thing in the morning when feeding them is no longer part of your routine (especially if you don’t have another pet); or the time you normally would have taken them for a walk, pet them, or played with them.  Be prepared, the house may feel very empty.  For some, creating a ritual or plan can be helpful during these tough moments.  When my lab Gloria died, I would come straight home and get in the shower, just to have something else to “do” during the time I would have been playing with her when I first got home from work.

5.  Dealing with the “stuff”. When a person dies we know we will ultimately have to address their many belongings – cars, clothes, homes, etc.  Many underestimate that, though our dog or cat may have had very few belongings, their presence can be very powerful and painful.  The sight of their leash, collar, or empty bowls can be excruciating.   Check out our other posts about belongings for some ideas for dealing with this.

Alright, after you subscribe to receive posts straight to your email inbox go ahead and hug your dog, cat, bird, snake, gerbil, or goldfish.  

May 23, 2017

9 responses on "Man's Best Friend: 5 Considerations for Grieving the Loss of a Pet"

  1. Our dogs, will be a part of our lives forever, they shared their lives with us and they love us like no other person will ever love us, when they die, our lives will never be the same, they teach us about love, something many humans don’t know, but there’s a purpose for them being in our lives, we found out happines in life through them, so at the end we will reunite our selves with them in the kingdom of heaven cause our heart’s belong to them, always and FOREVER.

  2. It’s taken me a while to write a comment about this post of yours but I would like to thank you so very much for writing this. On 29 January 2014, I lost the love of my life, my child, my beloved kitty Samson who was the closest being that I would ever have to having a child of my own. My Samson was always there for me for 12 & 1/2 years and while he was an absolute terror at times, and boy did he know it, he was full of life, cheeky, and an amazing animal. He saw me through so many tough times and I also saw him through tough times that he went through. He was sick, and I was working for months with an amazing vet to try to get him better but he had too many things wrong and was not improving and I had to make THAT horrible gut wrenching decision. Not a day goes by when I don’t miss my baby so terribly much and for months I cried every day and most days I still cry, missing him so much it literally does hurt. I have tried support groups, talking to a couple of people who lost their animals, but a lot of people just don’t get it and don’t get how important an animal can be to someone, that their animal is their child and their reason for going on and is pretty much the only thing that brings them any happiness. I still cry over our beloved doberman that we lost 30 years ago. Animals are so pure in their love, totally unconditional, total devotion, never judge you – their love is so precious. I loved my Samson for so many years and he’s been gone for almost a year & half and I still love him with all my heart and that will never change. My life, my love, my heart… The pain of loss and heartache is so terribly strong still. I wish I would wake up & find out it was all a bad dream and he’s still here and would see his face coming around the corner & hear his voice again and see his eyes again. Thank God for photos and video so that I can still see and hear him and remember so many wonderful times over the years.

    • Profile photo of Eleanor Haley

      Ahhh Diana I’m so sorry about Samson 🙁 I’m sure you miss him all the time. 12 & 1/2 years is a long time to come home to a companion only to have them gone. My heart goes out to you and I hope you find a little bit of comfort here.

  3. So sorry to hear that Joe. This past October my father died very suddenly and then one month later my beloved dog of 15 years died. And often I find myself mourning and missing my sweet dog more than my dad. But she was always there and loved unconditionally. To add to that, one month after she died my relationship ended because he could not understand why I was grieving so much. Three losses in three months, and still somehow life goes on.

  4. A few points to share:
    (sorry in advance for the use of caps for emphasis, but there are no italics available)
    1) I can SO relate to your feeling that ” Clearly this is evidence that my anxiety and worry is the only thing protecting me and my loved one’s from imminent death and/or cancer.” My jaw dropped when I read that, as I thought I was “the only one” who did this! It seems crazy, yet that ‘formula’ has born out more times than I care to count! I’ve even experimented with it at a few worrisome times, yet most of the time, a worse outcome HAS come about from NOT worrying, and I hate that! I figure it must be that inner belief in this that I developed over time, that keeps it “working” as is….seems impossible to break that problematic habit now. 🙁

    2) Respectfully, I have to say it greatly bothers me that anyone ever feels the need to make disclaimers, such as saying you’re “normal pet owners”…as if those who AREN’T seen as “average” in this regard, such as myself, ARE indeed “crazy.” Meanwhile, I consider it MORE “normal” AND totally appropriate, and even more loving, to (for just one example) sleep WITH one’s furbabies, rather than delegate them to another spot as if they somehow don’t “deserve” anything better. I also don’t believe any does or even CAN really “own” any other living being, so have never called myself an “owner” of any of my fur-family members.

    3) In the same vein, I have a big problem with hearing people say our animal companions are “like” family, as if they are automatically relegated to some arbitrary “lower” rung just because they’re not glorified humans. All my relationships with animals who have been beloved to me have been SO deep, loving, and rich, they aren’t “like” family, but in every way, shape and form, ARE family, and much more so than the vast majority of humans I’ve had in my life, particularly those who were blood-related! This all-too-common means of creating a subtle, yet distinct, lowering of their perceived “status” in society (“like” family, but not “real” family) is an insidious part of WHY grief over their loss is “disenfranchised” in the first place, and is therefore counterproductive to having animal loss respected, as it ought to be.

    The words we use are powerful and far-reaching tools and we should use them as wisely as possible.

    4) I, too, feel so bad for you Joe, and can’t imagine how incredibly shocking, sickening and heartbreaking two such losses, one following right on the heals of the other, must be for you. I know it would feel utterly “impossible” for me to cope with all at once, too. But obviously, someone like me would fully (and even gratefully) acknowledge that there is absolutely nothing abnormal or wrong with sometimes grieving more for Buddy than for your partner, or experiencing flipping back and forth between each. There’s no need to make any of that a ‘contest’ in our minds, though. EACH of the two losses must certainly be excruciatingly painful, and that’s all perfectly acceptable and understandable. Just give yourself the gift of great compassion for yourself in your pain, even if no one else does.

    I also “get” the whole Magical Thinking protective mechanism. In fact, I’m experiencing that phenomena again myself and have been for months now, just allowing it to stay there until “whenever.” It will help to shield me from the deepest parts of my pain until “if or when” I can gradually let it go…which, so far, has only been for the odd few seconds at a time.

  5. tHANK YOU SO VERY MUCH FOR YOUR POST. MY PARTNER OF 18 YEARS DIED SUDDENLY ON 01/04/2015, ONE WEEK LATER OUR BELOVED PET BUDDY DIED IN MY ARMS UNEXPECTEDLY..NEEDLESS TO SAY, I HAD TO BE PUT INTO A HOSPITAL FOR 2 WEEKS OF OBSERVATION..NOW I JUST CRY EVERY DAY..AND YES SOMEDAYS MORE FOR BUDDY THAN MY PARTNER. I KEEP SAYING TO MYSELF THAT THIS IS NOT REAL, ALMOST LIKE MAGICAL THINKING…I ALSO DON’T KNOW HOW MUCH LONGER I CAN LIVE WITH SUCH PROFOUND SADNESS!!

    • Profile photo of Litsa Williams

      Oh Joe, I am so sorry. That is so much loss to come all at once. I can’t even begin imagine. After such a short period of time it is no surprise that the pain feels impossible and that the tears come every day. Sometimes it is just a matter of getting through one moment at a time. Have you been getting any continued professional support after coming home from the hospital, of have you gone to any grief support groups? They aren’t for everyone, but for some they can be extremely helpful. Please know you are not alone – I hope you find some support here on our site . . .

  6. Marty Tousley @GriefHealingApril 27, 2015 at 12:02 pmReply

    Litsa, my dear, you already know how I feel about this topic ~ and I’m so happy to read that Amos is out of the woods! Blessings to you, and thank you for writing this ♥

  7. thank you this is hepful. I have a blog related to lessons learned from loving and losing our dog to cancer. She just died on Satruday. I would love to submit it as my “What’s Your Grief” story. Not sure how.

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