pet grief

The grief people feel when pets die can be intense, despite how seriously others take it, says one expert. (Design by Quinn Lemmers / Photo: Getty Images)

Diana Raab lost her dog, Spunky, last year and she says it’s “still painful” to think about her pet. The Maltese poodle was 17 when he died of pneumonia.

“It was a huge loss,” Raab, a poet and writer who lives in Southern California, tells Yahoo Life. “We were buddies. He was sick for the last month of his life and I was back and forth to the vet, so losing him made a huge hole in my life.”

Spunky spent a restless night before he died, and then died while laying on Raab’s lap. She’s still mourning, she says, noting, “It’s difficult to see little white dogs” while out and about.

It’s a pain that many can relate to — including celebrities like Paris Hilton, Ashley Tisdale and Kaley Cuoco, all of whom have recently shared feelings of grief over an animal.

“She was more than just a pet; she was family to me, a loyal friend who was always by my side through every twist and turn life brought my way,” Hilton wrote on Instagram about the loss of her 23-year-old chihuahua. Cuoco posted that the loss of her dog Dump Truck “has deeply pierced my soul,” while Tisdale remembered her dog Maui on Instagram, saying “not a day goes by” that she doesn’t think of her pet. “I can’t believe it’s been four years, it feels like forever. I feel you all around us.”

pet grief (Design by Quinn Lemmers / Photo: Getty Images)

“We were buddies,” Diana Raab says of Spunky. (Design by Quinn Lemmers / Photo: Getty Images)

It’s easy to write off the death of a person’s pet as less significant than that of a human loved one. But mental health experts say these losses can be difficult to deal with. Here’s why.

Why is pet grief so hard?

“Pets are family,” Hillary Ammon, a clinical psychologist at the Center for Anxiety & Women’s Emotional Wellness, tells Yahoo Life. “Often, pets are a part of their families’ lives for many years. People not only get used to having these animals in their lives every day, but also grow to love them.”

Pets also provide unconditional love, friendship and security, Katie Waugh, psychotherapist in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life. “Due to these unique bonds, it can be especially difficult when a human loses their pet companion,” she says. “However, pet loss is a form of marginalized grief because society at large tends to not view pet loss as ‘justified’ as compared to the loss of human life.”

Waugh stresses that “no two people experience grief and loss the same way,” and that pet loss “may trigger feelings from previous losses in the person’s life,” making the grief even worse.

Ammon says that there has been a shift in recent decades in how pets are viewed. “On average, people are settling down and having children later in life. Some are opting to not have children at all,” she says. “As a result, it seems people have started to view their pets as their children, in a sense.”

Ryan Wilson (Design by Quinn Lemmers / Photo: Getty Images)

Ryan Wilson with his late dog, Minnie. (Design by Quinn Lemmers / Photo: Getty Images)

Ryan Wilson knows the feeling. The Oregon-based wildlife biologist lost his 14-year-old dog Minnie last month. “I was devastated,” he tells Yahoo Life. “I have literally never been so sad or cried so much in my entire life. She was a constant companion and my best friend.” Wilson says Minnie’s death “left a large void in my heart,” although he’s trying to focus on the positive memories with her. “I think it will be a while before I’m able to smile thinking about her rather than welling up with tears,” he says.

How to grieve the loss of a pet

Experts stress that, like with any loss, it’s important to give yourself time and space to grieve a pet. “Be compassionate with yourself. It’s OK and normal to be sad and ache for the lost pet,” Aaron Brinen, assistant professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life.

Brinen notes that some people may minimize or demean the loss of a pet. “That position is unfair,” he says. “Some pets have seen us through first houses, marriages, births, graduate school, moving, loss of family members and worse.” Brinen also notes that he still has “an ache in my heart” for three dogs he’s lost throughout his life. “Take time and be sad,” he says. “Also, keep living. Your pet loved you and only wanted the best for you.”

It can be helpful to stay focused on your day-to-day tasks like work and school, behavioral health counselor Ketra A. Forry, manager of Behavioral Health Services at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, tells Yahoo Life. “But be sure to add in more time for self-care or enjoyable activities,” she says.

Ferry also recommends thinking about what may trigger your grief and trying to identify a strategy you can use to cope if you happen to experience a trigger. “Walking down the pet aisle in the grocery store may be a trigger for your grief,” she says. “If you have to walk down that aisle, play uplifting music on your phone.”

You can also consider donating or volunteering for a cause that helps animals or creating a memory book with pictures or paw prints, Ferry says.

Telling happy stories about your pet may help with the grieving process, too, Brinen says. “Those stories are the life you had with them,” he says. “Share them with those you love.” And, when you feel ready, you may want to consider having another pet at some point, he says.

Ammon stresses that it’s OK to be sad about the loss of your pet. “However, if you’re noticing that your feelings of sadness and grief are persistent for several weeks and impacting your daily functioning, it may be beneficial to process the loss of your pet in therapy,” she says. “Additionally, if several months pass, and you are struggling to talk about your pet, avoiding animals that remind you of your pet, or would describe the loss of your pet as traumatic, it may also be beneficial to seek out therapy services.”

Waugh notes that “there is no right or wrong time to reach out for professional help” and she encourages pet owners who have experienced a loss to consider it. “There is no shame in reaching out for help with the loss of a pet,” she says, “and therapy can be especially helpful in navigating ways to move forward with the grieving process.”


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