The hardest part of owning a pet is saying goodbye. Ken Dolan-Del Vecchio, author of The Pet Loss Companion offers these tips.
Don’t be surprised if losing your pet hurts more than when you lost a human family member. It is absolutely normal for some people who lose their animal companion to find this loss hurts more than when they lost a human loved one. If you’re one of those people, it doesn’t mean you loved your parent, sibling, or friend any less. Instead, it means you had an exceptionally close bond with your animal companion, probably because they lived in your house with you all of their lives, you touched them with your hands every day, and you may have cared for them in a very intimate way-bathing them, clipping their nails, preparing their food, and administering medication. This kind of closeness often builds an exceptionally deep connection.
It’s normal to feel numb, disbelieving, furious, guilty, sad, hopeless, confused, and calm–all within just a few minutes. You may also have difficulties with short-term memory, sleeping, and eating.
People grieve differently and there’s no right way to do it. Some people show a lot of feelings to a lot of people, others grieve more quietly. The length of time grief persists varies from one individual to the next. There are no correct and incorrect ways to get through this.
Expect your grief to progress unevenly. It’s normal to feel one day (or one minute) like you’re calm and doing better and then all of a sudden crash back into the pit of grief. Over time you’ll feel better, but the progression generally feels unsteady.
Take good care of yourself: eat well, rest, exercise, share your thoughts and feelings with loved ones. Share your thoughts and feelings with people who love and respect you, those who understand how much you loved your friend. Try to get enough sleep. If sleep proves difficult, soothe yourself with soft music, meditation, or stretching before retiring. Try to rest even if sleep eludes you. Do your best to eat well and drink lots of water. Stick with your regular program of exercise and daily activity. Sometimes working helps because it keeps you structured, provides constructive distraction, and places you close to loving friends. Sometimes it’s better to take a bit of time off.
Even the most loving pet guardians often feel guilty. No matter how much love and care you gave, how closely you paid attention to symptoms, or how carefully you made end-of-life decisions, in hindsight you may torment yourself with the suspicion that you failed to love, care, plan, and do enough. Take heart. Over time, talking these concerns through with others and thinking them through on your own will eventually help you see that you did all that one could, and your guilt will wither.
Inform and include children in ways that fit their age. Children younger than five typically cannot grasp the permanence of death. It can help to explain that the pet’s body stopped working and they will not wake up, eat, or move anymore. You may need to repeat this explanation a number of times. By age eight or nine most children understand death in a more adult fashion. Children of all ages, including teenagers, tend to assume that when unwelcome things happen in their family, somehow they may have had something to do with it. It can help to reassure them that this is not so by telling them that their friend died because she was old or sick or suffered an injury, and nothing they did contributed to this happening. Include children in whatever ritual the family decides upon: reading good-bye letters, letting go of balloons, or whatever other way you choose to mark your friend’s passing.