Dogs and cats are incredibly stoic, and even some diseases that they get may not actually cause them much pain. It’s really easy to beat yourself up over it, replaying scenes, wondering why you didn’t take your little one in sooner to get her checked out.
If you’re having those thought patterns, it can make it even worse.
Or sometimes people blame the vet.
I’m not going to tell you not to feel guilty, or that you shouldn’t feel regret, or be angry, because I think those might be unavoidable with any significant loss. It’s even worse when it happens suddenly. I only mention this because it’s just so hard to tell when a dog is sick — and cats can be even worse.
Guilt is one of the most common experiences losing a pet. No matter how your cat or dog died, it’s almost 100% predictable that you will feel guilty about something.
- I didn’t notice when she was sick
- I shouldn’t have gone on that trip
- I should’ve taken her to the vet earlier
- I should’ve spent more time with her
- I shouldn’t have lost my patience with her
- I shouldn’t have ….
If it was an accident, it can be even worse. I shouldn’t have let her off leash… But accidents really do happen. It’s not necessarily anyone’s fault.
Whatever it is, your brain will find a reason to blame you. Because our pets are vulnerable, and because the loss hurts so much. Feelings of guilt, self-blame, and remorse may be inevitable.
Sometimes, just knowing how common these feelings are can help a little.
It may seem impossible to stop these self-blaming thoughts. Try reaching out to a friend who understands how important your pet was. Talking about it can help.
Another extreme emotion that you might feel is anger, and sometimes, this feeling lasts a long time. Often, anger and blame seem like the only way to get through it. Many people become very angry at the veterinarian who treated their pet. Most professionals in the veterinary field are truly compassionate, and would never do anything to intentionally hurt an animal. Mistakes might happen, or it might have been a series of unavoidable events that took your pet from you now. We can hold onto our anger as a way to survive — and sometimes, people hide behind their anger because the pain of the loss is simply too great to bear. In this way, it can work as a defense mechanism, but such emotions may be coloring your view of reality and so be cautious. Most veterinarians would welcome a follow-up conversation around the circumstances of a pet’s passing. If you’re still feeling too fragile or emotionally wound up, then putting that off for a week or so might be better.
If after a few weeks you find that you cannot move past the anger, that might be time to enlist the assistance of a qualified professional. A good counselor or therapist can help you work through it.
Why does it hurt so much?
Losing a pet can be even more traumatic than losing a family member — because pets trust us so much! Who can say that we have such a closeness with a person? Also, your pet was always just there. Constantly. Ever-present, in every moment of every day.
We have no walls up with our animals. We let them see everything! We get undressed in front of them, they follow us into the bathroom, they see us when we’re at our best, and at our absolute worst. We don’t hide our emotions from our furry friends. There is no mask. Our dogs and cats are right there with us for literally everything.
Because of this, it’s a physical loss. We are always attuned to the needs of our own physical bodies, when we get tired or hungry or have to pee, and we do the same with our pets. In the back of your mind, you’re always thinking about them — have to go home and let the dog out or she’s gonna be hungry now or it’s time for his meds. We become wired to them, constantly tracking and monitoring their wellbeing. When they’re gone, it’s devastating on so many levels, including physically. It’s a part of your life that is just gone. It’s disorienting and incredibly painful.
And if your pets sleep with you? That absence is truly felt. It’ll take awhile for your nervous system to adjust to the fact that this little warm body isn’t there anymore.
One thing that can help sometimes is to sleep with extra pillows, so that physically you feel comforted when you’re asleep. One woman I know put her dog’s collar on a stuffed animal and slept with that. Don’t worry if it seems silly. Do what will make you feel better.
Honor your instincts. This is a massive shock you have experienced, and it will take time before your system adjusts. It’s going to be disorienting and difficult, possibly for quite some time. It may feel totally surreal, where you cannot accept that it’s happened. These are normal reactions. It’s the reverberation of this pain and loss working its way through you, commensurate to the love you have had with this little being who was your friend and companion.
What can you do right now to help with the immediate pain following the loss of a pet?
Honoring your loss is so, so important.
The way you memorialize your love is completely unique to you, and the process that your grief takes will be individual. Everyone does it differently, and you should follow your own instincts for what you personally need. If you want to withdraw from the world for a time, that’s okay. If you find yourself withdrawing more and more, over many weeks, then that’s a reason for concern that your grief may be turning into depression. Seeking out a qualified mental health professional would likely be very helpful if that happens, or at any time you feel overwhelmed or lost or unable to cope. (The Crisis Text Line is always available: Text HOME to 741741 at any time.)
One way to work through the grief is to be active in recognizing your loss.
There are lots of ideas you can consider.
Sharing the sadness
Sometimes, simply talking to others who understand pet loss can be healing. I often encourage those dealing with this pain to seek out a pet loss group, to gather with others who know what you are feeling. Your veterinarian may know of one locally for you to attend.
Or, you can join the community of grief with @PetGoodbyes on Twitter. There is a lot of love and understanding among others there.
Hold a memorial
Do you have family around, or close friends who knew how special your little one was? You could bring them together and hold a memorial for your little one. This could be anything you want, formal with invitations, or completely informal and impromptu, where you text a friend or two and ask them to come over right now and meet with you in honor of this loss. Sometimes people make it into a party, with a champagne toast, and lots of pictures around, and everyone shares their best memories of this companion of yours who is now gone.
This might be too painful for you, or maybe you don’t have people close by who would rally for something like this.
But with people, we do all these rituals of a funeral or wake or other services, and with animals, we often just…. don’t. It’s like you’re supposed to have one day of sadness and then buck up, bucko, and go back to normal life. But nothing about life is normal anymore. 🙁
Finding ways to make your grief visible can help sometimes. Or, for other people, having photos up and seeing the collar and food bowls is too painful.
It’s completely up to you, what you feel is appropriate and what you can handle.