If you have ever had a pet, then you know the worst part about it isn’t cleaning up their poop, or the torn-up furniture, or the expensive vet bills.
It’s the fact that you only to spend a fraction of your life with your most loving and loyal companion.
Back in June, I lost my best friend. My soul-creature. My wonderful, loving, one-of-a-kind cat, Squiggles. For the past few months, I have been slowly moving through the stages of grief after losing my pet.
My special bond with Squiggles
I’ve had Squiggles since the day she was born. Our other cat, Flopsy, gave birth to her when I was just 16-years-old, which was almost 22 years ago.
And boy did she live her 9 lives to the fullest! She lived in 3 different states, managed to get lost for a week and survive on her own, and traveled cross-country with me for 4+ months during Covid.
The bond she and I shared, without a doubt, is one of the most meaningful I will ever have in my life. She could communicate her needs to me with a single look on her face, and would even lick the tears from my eyes when I was crying.
And for the past 15+ years, I have been trying to prepare myself for the sad reality that one day, Squiggles would die. That she would no longer be present in her physical form.
At night, the gratitude I felt as she was curled up in my arm nook would be met by waves of sadness and preemptive grief.
I’d lay awake, find myself wondering:
“How much more time do we have left together?
Will I get to be by her side when she dies?
Is she going to be scared? Does she even know what death is?
Does she know how much I love her?
How will I possibly go on without her?
Will I ever see her again after she dies?”
Why Grieving a Pet Is So Hard
When a pet dies, many people face unique challenges around their grief because others automatically assume that the loss isn’t as significant as it would be if a human died.
In fact, a recent study found that when a pet dies, society doesn’t deem it as serious of a loss as when a human dies. This lack of validation and understanding can cause a person to have unresolved feelings about their pet’s death, which may lead to disenfranchised grief or complicated grief.
But if you’re a pet lover, then you know that losing a pet is one of the most devastating life events one can go through. Especially if the loss was sudden, traumatic, or distressful.
And even if your pet lived a long, happy life, when the time comes to let them go, it can feel like an impossible pill to swallow. Here’s why.
Your Pet Is Your Family
Even though your pet is an animal, one fact remains: your pet is also part of your family. And for some pet-lovers, the bond you create feels like even more; a pet might feel like part of your identity. Or even like an extension of your soul (if you’ve read The Golden Compass, then you know what I’m talking about!).
So when a pet dies, you don’t just lose an animal, you lose a family member. Or a piece of yourself.
Acknowledging the depth of your loss and validating your pain is essential, and being around others who understand can help too.
Your Pet Is Your Greatest Source of Comfort
Your pet provides more than companionship – they can become a major source of comfort and help you relieve stress. So when the one thing you would turn to when you’re feeling sad is no longer there, it may seem impossible to find relief. You can feel more isolated and alone than ever.
Remembering your pet, looking at photos and watching videos may unleash a floodgate of tears, but may eventually provide some of the comfort you’re seeking when longing for your pet. And, talking to others about them can also ease some of your pain and help you feel less alone.
Your Pet Is A Part Of Your Daily Routine
Typically, you spend more time with your pet than anyone else. When that presence is gone from your life, it completely disrupts your routine and makes you feel like you have no reason to get up in the morning.
Now that many of us work more hours from home, we have grown an even deeper attachment to our pets, because they are with us all day long.
If your pet was always by your side, you may automatically turn to talk to them, forgetting that they are gone. You are constantly reminded of the loss, from the time you wake up until you fall asleep.
Give yourself time to get used to your new routine without them there. And have compassion for yourself as you move through your new normal.
Your Pet Loves You Unconditionally
The bond and connection that you create with your pet is rare and unique. Relationships with humans come with more complications, more drama, deep insecurities and fears of what others may think. But with a pet, you can be completely who you are, and they will love you no matter what.
And even though your pet doesn’t speak your language, and can’t quite communicate their feelings with words, you know in your heart that how much they love you.
Stages of Grief After Losing A Pet
Grief is something you can try to understand logically, but you have to let yourself experience your emotions to get through it.
Understanding the different stages of grief after losing a pet, and pinpointing which stage you might be in at any given moment, offers some space for those feelings. And reminds you that there is hope that the pain can get better.
This is what many experience as the first stage of grief after a pet dies. It feels like what is happening is completely unreal.
You may not be able to cry or feel sad because you are so in shock. You may have moments where you reach out to touch them because you forgot that your pet has died and is no longer around.
It may feel impossible to focus, to sleep, to wake up, or be around others. You may feel like you’re in a haze. These symptoms may feel even stronger if you witnessed the death of your pet, or it was traumatic.
Typically this stage of grief will not last more than a few days. But remember, it might come and go in waves for months after your pet is gone.
The bargaining stage of grief is a period when you try to make promises to a higher power in exchange for helping your pet survive. Or you find yourself begging for relief from the pain.
For someone who may have a terminally ill pet, or a pet that has gone missing, the bargaining stage can be quite significant. If you still don’t know the outcome of your pet’s survival, you may start pleading that you’ll do anything possible to save them.
One of the more unique stages of grief for someone who has lost a pet is guilt.
Oftentimes as a pet-owner, you have to be the one who decides when it is time to say goodbye. When you have to choose euthanasia to end your pet’s suffering (like I did for Squiggles), it can leave you feeling ridden with guilt, even when you know it’s the best option for your pet.
Guilt can also show up in moments when you notice you are feeling happy again. Or forget about your pet for a few hours. Or get through the day without crying. This doesn’t mean that you are over the loss, or don’t love your pet – it just means that you’re human, and doing the best you can to get through your grief.
When anger bubbles up after the loss of a pet, you might direct it towards anyone – yourself, your vet, your loved ones, even your pet for leaving you. Sometimes you might feel angry or irritable and you don’t know why.
You have a right to feel angry when you pet dies. You might be angry about how it happened. Or that you have to try and go to sleep without them snoozing next to you. And angry about having to get through each day without them there to comfort you.
After Squiggles died, I became much more irritable in my day-to-day. Recognizing that this is a part of the stages of grief helped me have more compassion and understanding for myself and explain to others why I was getting so easily frustrated. (“it’s not you – it’s Squiggles”).
Anger is an important emotion to feel during your grieving process, because it can help you express the depth of your pain. I once heard that anger is just empowered sadness, which explains this stage of grief to a T. Because eventually, when you’re ready, that anger will lead to the most challenging stage of grief to process.
The depression stage of grief is when the reality of the loss starts to settle in. And the sadness you feel about your pet being gone starts to hit.
You may be very tearful, and desperately miss your pet. You may also start to think that you’re never going to feel better, and that you’re alone in your pain.
Other symptoms of depression may show up during this phase, like sleeping too much or too little, changes in appetite, having low energy, or difficulty finding pleasure in activities that used to interest you.
This stage of grief is typically the most painful, and happens to be the longest.
During this phase, it is important that you let yourself feel your emotions. Never think that you should be over the loss by a certain time. Or that you shouldn’t feel as sad as you do. It’s okay to cry. Or to still miss your pet. It’s okay to give yourself time to heal.
You may not feel like being around people, but having support from someone you trust and can lean on during this stage is essential.
And if you currently don’t have someone to turning to for emotional support, therapy to process your emotions can help.
Acceptance doesn’t mean that your grief journey is over; it’s accepting the fact that your life is forever changed.
You may not want to move through this phase of grief after losing a pet. You might be afraid that your memories will start to fade – like the sound of their meows in the morning. Or the way their whiskers would tickle your face. And even the smell of their stinky breath!
You might worry that if you accept the loss, it means you aren’t as sad anymore. And that being less sad somehow equates to having less love for your pet. This simply isn’t true.
The acceptance stage of grief is about honoring your pet and all the love you shared. While at the same time, you’re getting used to the “new normal.” And trying your best to live your life the way they would want you to.
Remember, acceptance isn’t an end goal to reach, it’s a continual practice. Some days it may feel like you’ve finally moved on. But if months later you find yourself sobbing on the couch looking at photos of your pet, that’s okay too.
The Bonus Stage of Grief After Losing A Pet: Making Meaning
As you move through the stages of grief after losing a pet, you may also gain new perspectives on life. And eventually, turn your profound grief into an opportunity for transformation and deeper meaning.
Making meaning takes acceptance a bit further. It’s a phase where you are able to integrate the loss into your life in a way that inspires positive change, connection, and hope.
You can do this by channeling your grief into art, and creating something to remember your pet. Or planting a tree in your backyard to honor their memory. Or even fostering animals as a way to give back or donating to organizations that help save animals’ lives.
When you are able to make meaning out of the loss of your pet, you are able to find a deeper sense of inner peace. And eventually allow the joyous memories to outweigh the sorrow.
Other Things To Remember When Grieving Your Pet:
Grief is Non-Linear
Many people think you move through the stages of grief in order. And that you can check off each stage once you’ve gone through it. This isn’t always true.
It is common to jump from one stage of grief to another without any rhyme or reason. You may go from feeling depressed, back to being in denial. Then thinking you’ve reached acceptance, right before you fall back into depression all over again.
You may also feel like you’re in more than one phase of grief at once. That too, is normal.
Grief is Highly Personal
Although these stages can help you pinpoint where you’re at, some days, they may not resonate. That’s okay. There is no right or wrong way to grieve.
Maybe you have a family member who seems like they’ve already moved on and you haven’t. Or maybe you want to talk about your pet and they are not ready. You are both valid. You can experience your grief in different ways.
Grief Gets Complicated
Taking time to grieve the loss of a cherished pet is a natural process. And you may have moments of missing your pet for the rest of your life.
But if your emotions are still overwhelming you a year after your pet died, you might be experiencing complicated grief.
Complicated grief can manifest in a number of ways:
- Ruminating in a deep and enduring sadness for a prolonged period of time.
- Delaying grief by avoiding the pain of your loss, either consciously or subconsciously.
- Exaggerating the pain of your grief by engaging in self-destructive behaviors.
- Hiding your grief, and being unaware of how some of your negative behaviors may be directly related to the loss.
If part of you thinks that you still have unresolved feelings around your pet’s death, going to therapy can help you process some of those emotions. Please reach out if you want a safe space to remember your pet and honor the love you shared.
Some final thoughts about Squiggles
I wish I could say that the years I spent worrying about Squiggles is helping me handle the stages of grief after she died.
Honestly, I’m not sure that it has.
What it has done, however, is help me handle her LIFE. And also, how I want to live mine.
Because when I acknowledged the limited time we had together, it reminded me to be grateful. And even on my worst days, her gentle purr, or the sound of her heart beating against my chest always gave me something to celebrate.
It also encouraged me to prioritize health above everything. And to put money towards her rising medical costs, which was much more important to me than buying new clothes or shoes. In the end, it helped her live much longer than I ever expected she would.
And, being aware of her death taught me how to be more present while she was alive. Because even when she woke me up by screaming her head off in the middle of the night, literally every single night, I was mindful of the fact that one day I would miss it.
And I was right – I do miss it. Every day. If you have ever lost a beloved pet, I’m sure you understand.
And if you too are in the process of grieving your pet-best-friend, I am so very sorry for your loss.
I know that it is impossibly hard. But I have no doubt in my mind that your pet was so grateful to be yours, and that they knew how much you loved them.
Take good care of yourself during this time, and please reach out if you need more support.