Losing a pet is no different from losing any other family member. Pet owners often go through a common five-stage process of mourning for a pet. At first, you may feel numb with disbelief or deny the truth. Next you may feel a period of intense anger ― at your pet for dying, at your vet for not saving your pet, at yourself for some perceived failure, at people you care for or at the world. The pain of loss can be so overwhelming that anger funnels off some of the intensity of the emotions. In the third phase, people try to bargain to force away the reality. Next, as the reality sinks in, you may feel helpless, depressed and unable to do your regular activities. Sadness and regret characterize this stage and you may need reassurance and comfort from others. Finally comes acceptance and an ability to make peace with the loss of your pet.
Don’t be surprised by the range of emotions you experience when you lose your pet. Your reactions may seem strange or not make sense. There is no “right” way to grieve a loss of this magnitude. Be kind to yourself. Recognize that you will be fragile for a while. Give yourself time and space to learn to accept the situation and recover. Cry when you need to. Talk with others as much as you can. Be alone if that’s what you require. Do whatever allows you to express your grief. Don’t be surprised if other people don’t seem to understand. There are many support groups online and in person that can help you get through the grieving process if your support system doesn’t come through.
The loss of a pet can be particularly difficult for children. For many kids, this may be their first experience with death. The most important thing to do when dealing with your child’s grief is to be honest and open. Let them talk it through. Listen closely. Reassure them. Let them know that you are sad, too, and that it is all right to feel this way. Never tell your child that the pet is “asleep” or “with the angels.” They need to understand that the animal has died and will not be coming back.
Little children, age three and younger, aren’t usually capable of understanding death and often associate a pet’s loss with sleep. Tell your child clearly that the pet is not asleep; that it won’t wake up or come back. Also be sure to tell the child that they are not responsible in any way for the death; that nothing they did or didn’t do could have made a difference. Children this age may exhibit some distress, particularly in play, for a while but will move on after a relatively short period of time.
Children between the ages of four and six have misconceptions about death. They may realize the animal isn’t coming back, but they can only process the loss as if the animal exists and lives underground or is asleep. It is not uncommon for kids this age to express anger or to temporarily regress in certain ways, such as having bladder or bowel problems or trouble sleeping. Again, you will need to reassure children this age that they are not responsible for the death and let them know that it is good to talk about anything they feel. Expect to have a number of conversations with these children to help them process the loss of their beloved pet.
From ages seven to nine, the death of a pet can lead a child to think about the possible loss of a parent. They tend to be curious and may ask a lot of questions about what the experience of death is and what it means. Again, honesty, openness and conversation are the best form of support. It sometimes takes time for children this age to act out any feelings associated with the pet’s loss. When they do, it may affect their sociability or focus on learning for a while. Be ready to talk with them about their grief whenever the need arises.
Adolescents often hide their feelings of grief. They may mirror the reactions of adults around them or bury the feelings below the surface. Again, straightforward conversation, expressions of your own grief and listening will help them overcome these difficult feelings.