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March 16, 2004 > Saying Goodbye...Coping With the Death of Your Animal Companion

Saying Goodbye...Coping With the Death of Your Animal Companion

by Nancy Lyon

When a human member of your family dies, there is usually sympathy and support; people gather to share your feelings of pain and loss. But when a nonhuman family member passes away, the response from those close to you often lacks understanding of the depth of your feelings of grief.

Unless you are fortunate enough to have the support and sympathy of fellow animal lovers, you may be subjected to remarks from well-meaning, if insensitive, people such as "after all it was only an animal," or "you can always get a new one." As if companion animals are objects and that grieving over the death of very important being in your life who happens not to be human is somehow unnatural. Although you may be hurt by this lack of compassion and understanding, it might help to remember that these unfortunate people have obviously never experienced the joy and non-judgemental love of an animal. You can only feel regret that this wonderful life experience has been lost to them.

Psychologists recognize that the grief experienced by people over the death of a beloved animal follows the same stages as with our other loved ones. At first there is shock and denial whether death has been from a prolonged illness or happened suddenly. There is a feeling of unreality and numbness. Next comes anger as feeling resurfaces, accompanied by a sense of guilt that you could have somehow prevented or contributed to the death. It's not unusual to try and strike a bargain with God or other powers-that-be if your pet could only be returned to you. Depression is the next step - life has changed and you feel intensely hopeless and alone. You think of your lost animal companion constantly, the joy and love you shared. You may seek places where you shared good times. Finally, and slowly comes acceptance, you still mourn but you move on.

If you have other animals, don't be surprised that they too go through a period of grieving. Nonhuman animals are also complex beings who evidence signs of going through the same emotions as their human counterparts. Intense feelings of loss are not exclusive to the human experience -- wolf packs have been documented to go through a period of intense mourning over the death of a member, and elephants have been shown to weep over the passing of a member of the herd.

The bond shared between animals can be very great and even those who may not have had the best relationship can experience stress and anxiety. They may become restless, anxious and depressed with much sighing. They can experience a loss of sleep and digestive upset. They may seek out the lost companions and turn to you for more attention.

Maintaining as much normalcy in routine such as rest, exercise and diet will benefit all family members. While you may be inclined to give increased attention to your other animals, being overly solicitous may cause them to develop separation anxiety and other behavioral problems. Knowing that you are sharing the loss with them can help you to cope.

If you wish, it's OK to keep toys and other special mementos of your pet where you can see and take comfort from them. Remembering the happiness you shared is part of healing. You know what your animal friend meant to you. Don't allow others to make you think that it is somehow not "right" to openly express your feelings about the wonderful relationship you shared.

Grieving is a normal process, but with time it's all right to give yourself permission to heal. This member of your family was a unique and wonderful being who cannot be replaced. The time you shared was a special gift and no other will be ever exactly the same. But when the time is right, you may choose to bring another into your home and heart and somewhere, waiting at the fabled Rainbow Bridge, your faithful companion will approve.

A card received from a dear friend over the loss of our beloved dog, Luke, sits on my bookcase and gives a wonderful message by Rita Mae Brown - "I still miss those I loved who are no longer with me, but find I am grateful for having loved them. The gratitude has finally conquered the loss."

The University of California at Davis offers free grief counselling at:
Pet Loss Hot Line at 1-800-565-1526; 530-752-4200 TTD -- 6:30-9:30 P.M.
October-June: Monday-Thursday; July-September: Tuesday-Thursday

There are wonderful websites that can connect you with others who share your loss and grief and offer support:
Pet Loss Grief Support Website
Rainbow Bridge (Home)

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