Pet Loss Support

We at Helen Woodward understand that your feelings when a pet dies are real and deserve the same respect as if it where any other family member. Wendy Khentigan, M.D. is a psychiatrist with a  general adult and adolescent practice in Encinitas.She is an animal lover and long time supporter of the Helen Woodward Animal Center. Wendy provides some tips on coping with that grief, and with the difficult decisions one faces upon the loss of a pet.

How soon should I get a pet after mine dies?

Is there a �right� or �wrong� time? There is no single answer to this question since every pet owner experiences grief in their own way. Give yourself and your family time to grieve. Some people need to talk about their memories, while others may want to cry and be left alone. It is normal to feel many emotions after the death of a pet including anger, denial, guilt, sadness, anxiety, loneliness, shock, confusion, and depression. Often well meaning friends may give inappropriate advice such as �why not just get another pet?� Often friends may not understand the significance of your loss. Respect how you feel, not the well meaning advice of others. Allow your feelings to be your guide as to when you will be ready to accept a new pet into your life. Most pet owners love the company of animals and will eventually want to invite another pet into their life.

Here are some considerations when choosing a new pet:

Do not compare your new pet to your previous pet. It is unrealistic to expect your new pet to be just like the one you lost. Focus on your new pet�s individual behaviors and characteristics as you build new memories and experiences.

In the case of a family, choosing a new pet should be a collaborative decision. Consider the feelings and needs of your children. Children may feel that giving love to a new pet is disloyal to the previous pet. Involve all family members in the discussion regarding a new pet. Do not give your new pet the same name or nickname as your previous pet.

Surviving pets may also have needs that should be considered. Will they welcome or resent a new pet? Some pets may mourn the loss of their long term companion, and introducing a new pet may help comfort the survivor. Dogs or cats will take time to accept a new addition to the family, and it is important to give the existing pet(s) lots of attention during the adaptation process.

How does one work through feelings of guilt?

Guilt is a common and powerful response to losing a pet. Guilt is a normal response to the perception that one may have failed his pet. Guilt often intensifies the sense of loss and can prolong the healing process. Pets can�t directly tell us how they feel so when something happens to our pet (i.e. illness, accident, death), the feelings of �letting our pet down� may turn into feelings of guilt, anger, or denial. The questions of �why didn�t I see this sooner?�, �did I do the right thing?�, �did I do everything that I could have?�, are common. Here are some suggestions to reduce the amount of guilt and start the process of healing:

Stop the critical self talk. Know that you did the best you could under the circumstances. Accidents happen. Illnesses happen. People make mistakes. Expecting to be perfect can only lead to frustration and self blame.

Try to redirect the feelings of inadequacy to the times that you provided for your pet and took great care of your pet as well as the times that you shared with your pet in good health.

Don�t hide your feelings in a misguided effort to appear strong and calm. Find someone you can talk to about how much the pet meant to you and how much you miss it. If you don�t have family or friends who understand, ask your veterinarian or humane society to recommend a pet loss counselor or support group. Grief counseling may be provided by your church or local hospital.

Remember your grief is genuine and deserving of support. Releasing the guilt does not mean that you don�t/didn�t care for your pet. Working through the destructive feelings of guilt is healthy for everyone involved.

How do you help children with pet loss?

Children do not respond to death in the same way as adults. The reaction of a child is typically more natural and curious until it is influenced by adults. The death of a family pet is often the first death experienced by a child. How this is handled will influence the child for the rest of his or her life. Children naturally develop strong attachments to a family pet and may relate to a pet as a sibling, playmate or special confidant. Children need guidance and support to understand their loss and to mourn that loss.

How the child responds to the loss of a pet will depend on the strength of the bond with the pet in addition to the age and developmental stage of the child. Always remember that the parent is the model for everything. Never assume a child is too young or too old to grieve. Do not criticize a child for tears, or tell them to �be strong� or not to feel sad. Be honest about your own sorrow; it is best not to try to hide it, or children may feel required to hide their grief as well. Younger children do not understand that death is final, sometimes not until the ages of nine or ten years old. The younger the child, the more confusing the finality of death can be. It is important to support the child based on their individual needs as well as their own ability to comprehend the finality of death.

2-3 Year Olds: Children at this age do not have the ability to understand death. It is best to be direct and tell the child the pet has died and will not return. It is important to reassure the child that they did not do or say anything to cause death. Giving extra reassurance, and maintaining routines will help the child.

4-6 Year Olds: Children at this stage may have some understanding of death but may not comprehend the permanence of it. It is not necessary to try and make your child believe that death is final. Understand that acquiring this information is a natural developmental process that happens when your child is ready to accept it. You may even notice that it may seem like your child fully understands that death is final, only to be surprised a few weeks later that they do not. This is perfectly normal.

7-9 Year Olds: Children in this age group typically know that death is irreversible. They may be curious and ask many questions. These questions are normal and it is best to answer in an open and honest manner. Grief may manifest in many ways such as school problems, physical complaints, aggression, withdrawal or clingy behavior.

10-12 Year Olds: Children in this age group may react to death in a manner similar to adults. Children in this age group are usually able to understand that death is natural and happens to all living beings. Children in this age group may want to help you make decisions about the disposal of their pet�s body. They may find significance and meaning in rituals that honor their pet.

Teenagers: The death of a pet can be particularly devastating to a teen. It is likely that children in this age group have enjoyed many years with their pet through their childhood. It is important to validate and not minimize this loss. The typical adolescent span of expression of grief can range from an apparent lack of concern to excessive emotions. One day they want to be treated like an adult, and the next day they need reassurance similar to a young child. They can benefit from hugs and offers to help them cope.

What activities can be beneficial in dealing with grief (all ages)?

Draw a picture about your pet. Have each family member share what the pictures mean for them. Always validate their feelings and praise them for sharing their feelings.

Gather together pictures or other small items for a memory book or journal. Include funny stories and memories.

Buy a headstone or decorate a rock at the burial site.

If your pet is cremated, involve all family members in the decision about where to scatter or place the ashes.

Plant a tree or bush in memory of your pet, especially in an area outside that your pet enjoyed. This can be a memorial that brings closure to the grief.

Donate money to an animal related charity in memory of your pet.