Coping with the loss of a dog is so hard. When a person dies, friends and family are usually united in grief, with acquaintances offering support and sympathy, but what many fail to realise is that not all loved ones are people.
The death of a pet, particularly a close companion like a dog or cat, can leave loving owners totally devastated, but there is a definite lack of understanding or appreciation for this loss by others who can’t get past the naïve belief that a pet is ‘just an animal’.
For bereaved owners, this attitude can be extremely damaging and prevent them from grieving and coming to terms with their loss, making them afraid to show emotion or talk about their feelings.
Emotional support: How do we cope with the loss of a dog?
The vast majority of us with pets will be faced by their death but, when that day comes, it’s important to remember that your feelings are normal and justified, and that you shouldn’t be ashamed to talk about your loss or cry. A creature you cared for, loved and received unconditional love from in return, has gone and you have every reason to feel hurt and upset, regardless of the fact that this loved one wasn’t human.
Bottling up your grief is a natural reaction in these circumstances, but it has long-lasting effects which can cause you further pain, heartbreak and even illness at a later date. No-one thinks death is an easy thing to come to terms with, but if you can, think about the enormity of what has happened and how it is effecting you so you can deal with your feelings and not just push them to one side.
We’re all different and no other person can truly claim to “know how you feel” as they can only know how they felt in similar circumstances, but many experts believe there are five main stages of mourning and most of us will experience some, if not all of them.
Recognising these stages can also be an important step in your acceptance process, so think about your behaviour and be prepared to listen to friends and family who may have seen a change in your personality you weren’t aware of.
Use the resources which are available to you, such as Internet sites, literature and bereavement counsellors. Information and advice is there to help people in your situation, so make the most of it – there’s no need to cope alone.
The stages of grief after losing a pet
There is no time limit on grief and we all come to terms with death differently, so never judge yourself by others’ experiences. You and the loved ones around you who are also grieving are the people you should be concentrating on, so don’t torture yourself further by thinking about how quickly someone else got over their loss – and besides, they probably hadn’t and were simply putting on a brave face.
However, it’s fair to say that the majority of us will go through some or all of the five stages recognised by experts, but not necessarily in a particular or most common order. Each stage can present or manifest itself differently in each individual, but, if you’re honest about your feelings, you’ll probably realise and hopefully accept which stage you’re going through.
There is no right or wrong way to handle a dog’s death
The shock of learning that your pet has either died or – the nightmare that many of us face – is desperately ill and should be euthanased to save he or she from further pain, can be too much to bear.
It’s common for people to refuse to believe this news, leaving them bewildered and/or distant, while others carry on as if nothing has happened. In a family, the latter can often cause animosity and further upset with relatives believing the person doesn’t care about their beloved pet.
Denial is simply a defence mechanism to hide from the painful truth and someone should not be attacked for doing so. Instead, try talking about the situation so that, little by little, the facts begin to sink in.
At some point – usually just a few hours or days, but in some cases much longer – they will accept that their pet has died or that their death is inevitable and the next stage of the healing process can begin.
Anger is natural when coping with the loss of a dog
So the truth has hit you – your four-legged companion has died or is desperately ill and should be given the peaceful end they deserve. Knowing this certainly doesn’t make it easy to handle and you’re furious that this has happened and lash out at your family and friends, the vet who was forced to deliver the bad news, yourself – sometimes even the pet you’re grieving for, angry that they’ve left you.
Again, this is a natural reaction, but one which can cause bad feeling between loved ones who are all suffering, so whether you’re the one who is angry or you’re just on the receiving end, remember what is behind this uncharacteristic behaviour.
Try your hardest not to be judgemental or to point blame, and if an argument erupts because of the strain, take a few deep breaths or even walk away for a few moments until everyone has calmed down. Whenever possible, talk about and make amends for anything hurtful which has been said as guilt will only cause further problems.
This stage is particularly relevant for owners with terminally ill pets. Quite often we try to make bargains with ourselves, our family, vets, and very often God, that if our pet is saved, we’ll do something differently and keep our promises.
This is an attempt to regain control and change the course of events, but this is obviously false hope and, deep down, we often realise this. The truth is our enemy, but also our cure. Talking things through and repeatedly going over the facts is one of the best ways to understand that nothing you do or say can change what has happened or that your pet’s death is unavoidable.
Depression after the loss of a pet
The severity and nature of depression varies dramatically from person to person, but this is almost always the most difficult stage to clear. Practical implications, such as the cost of medical treatment and the use of time you previously spent with your pet, can cause much worry, not to mention the guilt we often feel about the treatment of our pet and others.
Have I helped my loved ones?
Have I made their grief worse?
Did I do enough for my pet before he or she died?
Questions like these plague us and, as there seems little to be positive about, it’s very difficult to gain control of our thoughts and feelings. Other people are extremely important at this stage as they can not only offer comfort and support, but are often able to put things in perspective.
If you are on your own, this is a good time to seek the help of a bereavement counsellor or to contact others through charities and even some pet insurance companies now offer dog bereavement coverage. Make use of these services. They can really help you cope with the grief of losing a beloved dog.
It may seem uncomfortable at first talking about personal feelings with a stranger, but these people are there to help because they’ve dealt with their own grief and appreciate what you’re going through.
During this stage, many people decide to get another pet, believing it will take the place of the beloved companion they’ve lost, but this is not a time to make such a decision as it’s natural to compare your new member of the family to the one you so dearly miss. This simply isn’t good for you or fair to your new pet. Give yourself enough time to come to terms with your loss before you embark on another special relationship.
Accepting your dog’s death and coming to terms with the loss is a long and painful process, but one you can complete if you allow yourself to grieve. Having shed your tears and conquered your feelings of anger and guilt, it’s time to remember your pet in his or her prime and the love they gave so freely to you and your family. Death is a tragic fact of life, but both people and pets will continue to live on in our memories, so never be afraid to reminisce as a part of the process of coping with the loss of a dog.
How to survive after the loss of a dog
Grief is a confusing, frustrating emotion which can prevent you from concentrating on anything else and totally take over your life for weeks, months, even years – but as the old adage says, life goes on and so must you. No-one expects you to forget about the pet you adored, but there are better ways to remember them than by feeling miserable or guilty. Face the truth, cry your tears, talk through your feelings and, ultimately, celebrate the life which brought you so much happiness.