My Havanese, Cosmo, was my loyal companion and dog agility partner for 10 years. So when cancer took him suddenly this past December, it felt like I lost a part of myself along with him.
Dealing with pet loss is just as real as dealing with the loss of a human family member. And while I was fortunate, through my pet blog, to be surrounded by an online community of supportive pet lovers, I wasn’t prepared to deal with the loss.
While the grieving process is personal and different for everyone, I learned that a good support system and the right type of preparation can help anyone who experiences pet loss.
“We know that stuffing feelings keeps us stuck and sharing feelings with trusted others has great rewards,” says Christy Simpson, a licensed clinical social worker and certified pet loss counselor. “Often it’s a matter of preparation and willful determination, which allows us to thrive in the face of loss.”
In 2011, Simpson was certified as a pet loss counselor through the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement and now she leads a free monthly pet loss support group offered at Paws, Whiskers and Wags, a pet crematory in the Atlanta area. Simpson also provides individual therapy and support services through her clinical practice in Atlanta.
In addition to community support groups, there are a number of resources that can help you prepare for and cope with the loss of a pet.
How can I emotionally prepare for the loss of a pet?
Thinking about losing a beloved pet can be too heartbreaking to even imagine. And while every loss is unique, there are certain stages of grief you can expect to experience.
“Pet loss grief closely mimics the grief experienced when we lose a human relationship,” says Simpson. “You can expect to feel shock and disbelief, anger and distancing, denial, guilt, depression and finally resolution, or closure.”
Simpson adds that euthanasia can intensify the guilt experience, and that giving yourself time and permission to grieve, as well as turning to a support system, can help you through the process.
Where can I turn for help?
The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement offers free, online chat rooms for those suffering anticipatory bereavement or other types of pet loss in a safe, accessible manner, says Simpson.
Psychologist Dr. Wallace Sife, Founder of the APLB, is the author of The Loss of a Pet, a guide to coping with the grieving process when a pet dies.
The APLB also has a list of Pet Loss Support Groups on their web site, and some local humane societies offer support groups as well. PetPartners.com and PetLoss.com also offer resources for support online and by phone.
How do I know when it’s “time”?
Your veterinarian can help guide you and answer questions regarding your pet’s condition. While it’s something most folks find difficult to discuss, having the discussion about what to expect ahead of time can help prepare you for difficult decisions.
The quality of life scale, developed by Dr. Alice Villalobos, can also help provide some objective insight into your pet’s condition, especially if they have a terminal illness or are already receiving palliative care.
When is right time to get a new pet?
Getting a new pet is a very personal decision – some may be ready right away and for others it may take a year or longer.
“The grief process is an individual experience,” says Simpson. “And while everyone’s timeline may be different, just be mindful about feelings of disloyalty if you get a new pet too soon.”
Most importantly, only you will know when the time is right.
Additional helpful resources:
- The ASPCA: Common questions when dealing with the loss of a pet
- Petloss.com: Resources for pet loss support by phone
- Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement: Help with anticipatory bereavement
- Pawspice.com: Quality of Life Scale
- WSU College of Veterinary Medicine Pet Loss Support: “Should I Get Another Pet?”
Diane Silver is the founder of To Dog With Love, a pet blog celebrating the fluffier side of life. Diane and her nine-month-old Havanese Rocco are enjoying the good life and the joys of puppyhood in Atlanta, GA.