The Pain of Loss

“This is the most terrible pain I have ever had and I feel like I will never be the same person I was before my pet passed.  It felt like someone ripped my heart out of my chest when he died and a scream came out of me that was from some place unknown. I feel like I cannot go on and have lost my best friend who loved me without conditions or expectations.”  — Bereaved pet owner

Becoming attached to beloved animal companions causes us to experience both joy and pain.  The bonds we develop with pets can be as deep, and often deeper than, those formed with other people. “With a pet,” said one bereaved pet owner, “you have a daily companion…. Animals bring such warmth of the soul. It’s a presence that’s always by your side.”            

When a beloved pet dies, people may grieve more intensely than they would for the loss of a beloved human. Pet loss grief is unique because pets give people something humans are not always able to provide – unconditional love and nurturance. 

“I think just living alone he was my best friend and companion. His loyalty was unwavering. I cry every day when I drive home as he will not be there to greet me. I preferred taking him on outings over people. He loved to go wherever I went.”

“I had her in my life for a reason. She taught me unconditional love.”

Normal and Natural Feelings Following the Loss of a Pet 

Intense Grief

People are often surprised at how intense and overwhelming their feelings are.  The words they use to describe their loss reflect the anguish they experience. 

“This has been a heart-wrenching experience. My cat just passed two days ago.  I cry a hundred times a day and will never be the same. My heart feels empty right now and aches so badly. I miss her so, so much that it hurts my soul. I am so devastated.  This is by far, the most difficult thing I have ever faced.” 

Many pet guardians describe their beloved animal companions as family members, soul mates, and best friends – they share daily interactions and rituals. For many people, “their pet was always there for them.” Losing a best friend is painful, devastating,  and heart wrenching. One person described missing her dog so much that it was “like a knife in her heart.” These feelings are common and expected responses to grief.  Bereaved pet guardians have a right to these intense feelings as the depth of their loss is great – it is very important to allow oneself to express these feelings.

Numbness/Shock

When death comes to a beloved pet, it can seem like a shock.  People describe feeling like they are in a daze or “in a fog.” Shock and disbelief are common when people try to understand what has happened to their pet and what kind of future they can have without their beloved pet. Feelings of disbelief, shock, and numbness protect us from feeling the pain of grief all at once.

Being  “dazed” or “numb” gives people time to gradually comprehend the death.

Anger

Anger is a common feeling and it can be directed at many things and people – the disease that caused the death, family, friends, co-workers, veterinarians and the veterinary staff.  Anger may be felt towards people (e.g., friends, co-workers) who don’t understand the profound loss.  Insensitive statements such as, “ it was just a dog” or “what’s the big deal, there are lots of cats who need homes” —- comments often directed to those in grief —- can result in anger and feeling misunderstood and unsupported.

Bereaved pet owners may also be angry at the veterinarian because of perceived veterinary incompetence.  In addition, anger can be directed towards God for letting this happen. As expressed by one bereaved pet guardian: “I have lost total faith in GOD…how could GOD make something that NEVER NEVER did anything wrong suffer and die at such a young age?”

 Guilt  

Guilt may occur if pet owners feel responsible for the pet’s death.  People may blame themselves because they perceive it is something they did or did not do that may have lead to their pet’s death.  A common source of guilt is euthanasia. Sage advice with regard to guilt has been shared by Father Paul Keenan (2008) who states:

“It is important to acknowledge our feelings of guilt and then let go of them…. We all do things that later we regret.  It makes no sense to clutter up the loving relationship we have had with our animals by giving in to relentless remorse. In life, they love us unconditionally, and one of the things that animals…can teach us is to love ourselves unconditionally as well.”

Coping with pet loss: Support and Resources

Understand that the loss of a beloved pet is a significant loss, and intense grief is normal. The more one loves someone, the more it is going to hurt when they are gone.

People who do not understand and appreciate the pet-human connection may not understand your pain and grief.  Seek out supportive situations:

  • Pet loss support group
  • Books on pet loss
  • Websites
  • Pet loss hot lines
  • Counseling
  • Spiritual resources

It takes times to fully absorb the impact of such a major loss. You never stop missing your beloved pet, but the pain eases after time and allows you to go on.

Wendy Packman 2011

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Wendy Packman

Wendy Packman

Wendy Packman, JD, PhD is a Professor of Psychology at Palo Alto University( PAU) and holds clinical appointments at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) and Stanford University. She is the Director of the Joint JD-PhD Program in Psychology and Law at PAU and Golden Gate University Law School. She is admitted to the State Bar of California and is a licensed psychologist in California. Dr. Packman received her clinical training at Boston Children’s Hospital and the Judge Baker Children’s Center, and the Division of Behavioral and Developmental Pediatrics, UCSF. Her research interests and publications include studies of the psychological effects of bone marrow transplant on donor and non-donor siblings, psychological interventions for siblings of cancer patients, and psychological issues faced by children and young adults with inborn errors of metabolism. In the area of psychology and the law, research interests include ethical and legal issues in child and pediatric psychology, risk management with suicidal patients and malpractice. Dr. Packman has studied, presented and written extensively on sibling bereavement and continuing bonds, the impact of a child’s death on parents, and the psychological sequellae of pet loss. She is the primary investigator of an international cross-cultural study examining the continuing impact of a pet’s death and she is a co-investigator exploring the use of continuing bonds in pet loss.

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