“’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
~Alfred Lord Tennyson
Anybody who has ever loved, taken care of, or welcomed an animal into one’s home and heart can probably appreciate just how profound the bond between human and animal can be. Losing an animal, therefore, can be profoundly devastating. Although it is quite normal to experience grief in response to the loss of a beloved animal, grieving a pet is unfortunately stigmatized in our society where it is culturally ingrained to believe that animals are inferior and subservient to people (e.g., think of the inhumane treatment of animals in research labs, the factory farming industry, and puppy mills).
There are myriad reasons why we love our animal companions (a.k.a., pets) so deeply. Among the nearly infinite reasons, the most commonly cited include perceptions that animals are warm and cuddly; they are loyal and protective of their families; they make great companions and ease loneliness; they are forgiving of our human flaws; they love unconditionally; they are emotionally intuitive and perceptive of our needs. Many people find comfort in snuggling their pets, stating that their animal friend “knows” when they are upset or needing such support. Folks say that “animals give so much without asking for much in return.” In fact, many animal lovers half-joke that they “prefer animals to people.”
It is important to acknowledge the complexity and depth of the bond that can form between humans and animals. Most animals, like people, are sentient beings, capable of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and feeling (both physical and emotional). Animals often form loving relationships with members of their biological families, as well as with their adoptive, human families.
To love someone is to invest emotionally in them. The joy and happiness someone brings us in life (be it a person or animal) may be experienced in equal measure as pain/sadness in one’s absence. This is because the individual has meaning to us. Grieving the loss of a loved one can be a challenging and intense process. This is true whether your loved one is of the human or animal variety.
An animal lover knows just how tremendous, devastating, and real the loss of an animal can be. As our animal friends typically have shorter lifespans than we do, we, humans, often outlive our furry (and sometimes non-furry, in the case of reptiles, amphibians, hairless cats, etc.) companions. Among other reasons, our beloved animals succumb to illness and old age or may be the unfortunate victims of car accidents or running away. Sometimes, we must relinquish care of our pets, such as when our circumstances change or we lose the capacity to care for them (i.e., due to personal accident/injury, physical and/or cognitive decline, and change in financial status or residence).
When we lose our animal friend, as in one of the above situations, it may be challenging to fully experience one’s grief due to social stigma (that we may have internalized). It is unfortunately common for others to minimize your reaction (or perhaps you do it to yourself): “Oh, but it is just a dog/cat/hamster/ferret, etc.,” “At least it’s not a spouse, child, mother, sister, etc.,” or “You can just get a new one.” This is invalidating and hurtful to the grieving person who may have lost an integral member of his/her family. Imagine losing someone near and dear to you and how painful an experience that can be. Attempting to validate and show compassion for your own or someone else’s experience of pet loss can go a long way. Animals are more than just pets; they are often beloved friends, companions, and family members.
Grief, which can be an emotional, cognitive, physical, and even spiritual experience, may be experienced more broadly than what we typically assume. It is common to think of grief when it pertains to a loved one (usually human) passing away. However, research suggests that non-human animals experience grief, as do people in reaction to varied life events and changes. We may experience grief in response to the loss of a relationship or how we see ourselves (i.e., a physical or psychological loss, such as the loss of a limb or one’s health and/or youth). It is also quite normal to grieve the loss of an animal in one’s life.
Many folks have heard of the Kubler-Ross model outlining the multiple stages of grief, which include: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance (Kubler-Ross & Kessler, 2014). You may experience these stages in response to the very real loss of your pet. Some examples of how these stages may manifest include (Hines, 2015):
Denial: feeling shock, confusion, bewilderment; not accepting that your pet may be terminally ill or deceased (i.e., “I can’t believe this is happening.” “This can’t be real.” “He/she isn’t really gone.”)
Anger: feeling angry and potentially lashing out at others (i.e., vet, family, friends); feeling guilty about not having done more for your pet.
Bargaining: making promises about what you would do/not do if only it would make your beloved pet better or alive again.
Depression: feeling sad, devastated, hopeless, and lonely in missing your pet and wishing s/he were still with you.
Acceptance: reaching a point of acceptance and healing; reconciling the pet’s loss with the many positive memories of him/her (i.e., “she was such an adorable, mischievous kitten/puppy”). The loss may no longer be at the forefront of your mind.
Losing a pet is losing a family member, and you have permission to honor your grief reaction. It may take time to heal. Some suggestions for healing include:
- Be kind to yourself and engage in self-care activities (i.e., yoga, exercise, pampering)
- Remember that it is normal to experience a range of emotions
- Honor your beloved pet (i.e., look through old photographs, write a poem, hold a commemorative ceremony, share favorite anecdotes about your pet)
- Seek support from loved ones
- Consider volunteering with animals or adopting a pet (if/when you are ready and able)
Dr. Jacquie Talesnick is a licensed clinical psychologist at the Rowan Center for Behavioral Medicine who has trained in both cognitive-behavioral and psychodynamic therapeutic approaches. She considers herself to be an integrative therapist, pulling from different methodologies and theories to tailor treatment to each individual with whom she works. She offers psychotherapy services to late adolescent and adult populations in individual, couples, and group modalities. She specializes in working with individuals in the LGBTQ community. Her other specialties include treatment of relationship difficulties, trauma, depression, and anxiety. She has a special interest in the benefits of animal companions, as well as supplementing traditional “talk therapy” with creative approaches (i.e., writing, art).
Please feel free to call the Rowan Center for Behavioral Medicine for further information 818-446-2522 or email
Hines, R. (2015). Grieving & Pet Loss – Coping With Death Of A Loved Dog Or Cat. Retrieved March 08, 2016, from http://www.2ndchance.info/grieving.htm
Kubler-Ross, E., & Kessler, D. (2014). On grief and grieving: Finding the meaning of grief through the five stages of loss. New York. Scribner.