The animals in your life are more than just animals. They are family members, friends, sources of support, confidantes, and suppliers of unconditional love.

When they are no longer with you, either from death or other circumstances, you grieve just as you would any other significant loss in your life. This is a natural process as you adjust to the changes in your life, creating new routines and patterns to your days.

Grief is one of the most normal and natural occurrences that you can experience after a loss; yet it is one of the most misunderstood. When you grieve, you can experience a myriad of emotions that can affect each area of your life: physical, intellectual, emotional, social, and spiritual. One moment you may be angry, the next you may cry, and then you may decide to get busy with a task and instead crawl into bed and go to sleep.

​This roller coaster effect, which leaves some people wondering if they are normal, is part of the natural process of grieving, with nothing crazy about it. It is a very healthy psychological and physical response that requires expression and acknowledgement. Attempts to suppress feelings of grief can sometimes actually prolong the healing process.

Processing grief

Give yourself permission to grieve

You’ve experienced a tremendous loss. You deserve the opportunity to grieve as you need to. Surround yourself with others who understand the bond you had with your companion animal and who you can openly talk with about your grief without fear of judgment. Try and pay no heed to comments from misunderstanding individuals.

Acknowledge and express your feelings

This can help release some of the energy from within you and allow you to gain perspective. Talk with those you trust. If you have difficulty talking about your feelings with others, journaling or writing a letter may be a helpful way to process your emotions. Some other creative expressions that capture your feelings may include creating artwork with clay, oils, pastels, painting, drawing, designing a shadow box or collage, and writing stories or poetry.

Identify what has been helpful with past losses

You already have a wealth of coping skills that you’ve created throughout your life. Regardless of the magnitude of previous losses, from misplacing keys to losing a loved one, you made it through those losses using your strength and skills. Identify what has helped before and call on that now.

Give yourself permission to backslide

Grief is neither predictable nor avoidable. It just happens. Grief can overcome you in waves of emotion, ebbing and flowing much like the tides of an ocean. This loss is causing a lot of changes in your life and it will take time for you to adapt.

After a loss, you experience many firsts; the first morning to not fill the food bowl, the first afternoon to not go for a walk, the first time to go to bed without sharing your pillow, the first time you watch television with an empty lap, first birthday after a loss, first anniversary of the death and so on. These events can knock you backwards into strong grief emotions for a while. Be aware and prepared for these events so you can give yourself permission to grieve strongly again. It can help to call in advance on those who support you.

Be patient with yourself

Grieving a significant relationship takes time, much more time than society sanctions. Go easy on yourself!

Find a special way to say goodbye to your pet

Society promotes rituals for humans such as funerals and receptions. Create your own ritual for your pet, a loss often as significant as that of a human. You can write an obituary, hold a celebration of your pet’s life, donate to a cause in your pet’s name, plant a tree or bush, or create something. If the loss was unexpected, you can write a letter or talk to a photo of your pet, telling him all the things you didn’t get a chance to say. You can also write a letter from your pet, expressing what he or she would say to you, something only you could know for sure.

Do something that brings you joy

Allowing yourself to smile doesn’t mean you miss your pet any less, only that you are taking care of yourself through your heartache.

Grief complications

There are several factors that can complicate your grief, so allow yourself some permission for additional grieving time. Some of these factors include:

  • No previous experience with significant loss, death, or grief
  • Other recent losses
  • A personal history involving multiple losses
  • Little or no support from friends or family
  • Societal norms that trivialize and negate the loss
  • Insensitive comments from others about the loss
  • Generally poor coping skills
  • Feelings of guilt or responsibility for a death
  • Untimely deaths like those of children, young adults, or young companion animals
  • Deaths that happen suddenly, without warning
  • Deaths that occur after long, lingering illnesses
  • Deaths that have no known cause or that could have been prevented
  • An unexplained disappearance
  • Not being present at death
  • Not viewing the body after death
  • Witnessing a painful or traumatic death
  • Deaths that occur in conjunction with other significant life events like birthdays, holidays, or a divorce
  • Anniversary dates and holidays after the loss
  • Stories in the media that misrepresent or cast doubt on medical treatment procedures
  • Advice based on others’ negative experiences or on inaccurate information about normal grief

After any loss, especially one of this magnitude, it may be helpful to seek out the assistance of a grief counselor or other mental health professionals to support you through your grief.