Navigating Pet Loss

The death of a cherished pet is one of the most devastating losses we endure.

Why?

Because a pet’s love is unconditional and when it’s gone, it can bring you to your knees in a heartbeat.

Our pets provide complete acceptance and they never judge us whether we come home grumpy after a bad day or shorten the afternoon walk because we’re feeling sick. They’re excited to see us. Eager to forgive. The best listeners. And seem to intuitively know when we need them the most.

My beloved dog growing up was my confidante. I told Oppie EVERYTHING knowing that my secrets were safe with him. He also seemed to have a 6th sense when I was sick and refused to leave my side when chemo beat me down. And when I was ready to play and run outside again, he was right there.

For many people, the relationships they have with their pets are closer than the relationships they have with humans. Many people joke about this, but let’s be honest,  pets are there for you when others walk away. And their loss completely disrupts our daily routines – the regularly scheduled time spent walking, grooming, playing with and caring for your pets leaves a huge void in everyday life.

Pet death can be further complicated by having to make the decision to euthanize. Guilt often shows up in the wake of this decision because even when you know it’s right – it’s never easy. And it can be compounded if we were simply unable to afford a potentially life-saving surgery (not many families have a spare few thousand set aside).

You see it all the time in our society, we have a history of being dismissive (or downright rude) of the grief that accompanies pet death. Well-meaning friends and family invalidate or minimize our grief with statements like, “You can always get another one”, “It was only a dog, it’s not like it was your mother/child/spouse etc”,  or “At least your pet isn’t suffering anymore.”

Which leads me to….

That pesky phrase “at least”.  It’s important to remember that no truly empathetic response begins with “at least…” (once I learned this, it was surprising how often I caught myself almost saying it). As well-intentioned as these statements might be they don’t help the person who’s grieving. 

Grief is a normal, natural reaction to a pet’s death. If you know someone who’s grieving the loss of a pet the best thing you can do is be a heart with ears. Instead of trying to intellectualize the loss (with statements like those listed above) just listen with an open, compassionate heart. Support them with patience, understanding, kindness and care.

*y’know, the way YOU’D want to be treated.

Here are some things you can do:

If your family has recently lost a pet…

1 – Start a ritual to remember your pet. A picnic at their favourite park on the anniversary of their adoption. Light a candle for their birthday or any other special days.

2 – Have a funeral. Or create your own ceremony to say goodbye.

3 – Pet loss is often the first experience of death for kids. Encourage them to talk about their favourite memories of their pet and any feelings they have. Ask them to draw a picture of their pet or list their top 10 favourite things about their pet. Put a framed picture of their pet in your child’s room. 

  • Refrain from using phrases like “being put to sleep” which can confuse kids and make them afraid to go to sleep in case they don’t wake up again just like their pet. If you’d like more resources for helping kids through the grief of pet loss go here.

4 – Find a way to memorialize your pet. I’ve seen beautiful clay or ink paw prints done or many people also choose to get tattoos of their pet on them. If you choose to cremate your pet, you can use the ashes in a variety of ways – including putting some of the ash in the ink for your tattoo! You can also use the ash in stained glass or gemstones, pressed into a vinyl record, made into a coral reef or shot up into space!

Everyone grieves pet loss in their own way and it’s important to find truly compassionate people to help you navigate the loss. My friend Jess’ dog recently died and she chose to have her dog cremated. She spoke so highly of the incredibly caring and supportive staff at Thistledown Pet Memorial. The owner, Colin, walked her through their columbarium niche (walls where the ashes are kept) and could tell the story of every animal there. From a hamster to horses that served in the Toronto Police Department. She said his compassion was evident in everything he did. Something she hadn’t anticipated was how relieved both she and her kids felt having their dog’s ashes back with them. 

 If you’re looking for support in navigating the death of your pet know that you’re not alone. I’d be honoured to guide you through The Grief Recovery Method. You can find all the details here.

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