Understanding and Coping with the Death of a Pet

Over 70% of US homes have at least one “pet” (and we use that term loosely). To put that into a scope that your brain grasp a bit more easily, 90.5 MILLION homes in our nation include at least one companion animal.  For a majority of these furry, four legged, friends living with humans is being treated as one of them… as part of the family… as a pseudo “child” and valued member of the pack.

This is a major shift from times as recent as 40 to 50 years ago, when pets were considered property, and many were just working animals or a “lawn ornament” who lived the majority of their lives fenced in, or on a lead in the side yard. Pets are now an industry, a “first step” by many young couples to enter into the responsibility of taking care of another life before deciding to create life of their own. Pets are cherished, pampered, included in life’s future planning, and often treated as equals in the family dynamic. It’s no wonder that when a pet dies, the impact is akin to the death of a human member of the family.

This weeks Dog Blog will entertain the possible reasons why there has been such a shift in the way pets have become more and more “human” in their family status, how their deaths impact their owners, and answer the question “why is dealing with the loss of a pet so painful?”

Why are We So Attached to our Pets?

In days long past, pets were considered an “asset” or a companion. In the case of dogs, many were working animals with hard jobs. Farm animals helped to tend herds, provide security, offer companionship, act as a protector, assisted with the important task of hunting, just to name a few “professions” they were called upon to fill.

In today’s world those jobs still exist, but the majority of pets are no longer called upon to fill those roles. A pet has morphed into a pocket therapist, a source of comfort in hard times, an in home comedian, a constant and trustworthy friend, a cuddle buddy, that one thing you can count on to be a source of emotional support in hard times, a nonjudgmental best friend who just listens to your troubles and wants only to help you cope with the bad things in life. Their love in unconditional, and their desire is singular… to spend time with you and make you happy. There is NO one human equivalent that fill this important role in your life… pets are unique.

Animals, unknowingly and uncontrollably, become a part of our families and a major player in our decisions.

Let’s be real for a moment, shall we? There is a certain joy in knowing that when you return home, no matter if you’ve been gone 10 days or 10 minutes, regardless of your mood, no matter what you look or feel like at the moment, your pet is incredibly happy to see you… joyously giddy with just the sight of your return. It’s a beautiful experience to see that explosion of happiness just because you walk through your door. It is a bond that exists nowhere else in our lives. There is no disappointment in your arrival, no hesitation to see what emotional baggage you might be carrying, or if you are in a receptive mood. You never have to “feel out” a pets emotional state or consider how their day has been before you engage them. Heck, you don’t even have to talk to them before you unburden your emotions of a sad, painful, hard, happy, or normal day onto them. They live every moment waiting for a chance to be with you, to be near you, and to just “be” in your world. That devotion is unmatched in any other relationship you have in your life. They don’t care about anything but being… as long as you’re who their being with. In this way, a pet is the most perfect companion a human can ever have.

Why is a Pets Death so Painful?

There are a lot of reasons for the devastation we feel at the loss of “just a silly animal” in our lives. When a pets dies, many people feel an emotional, physical, physiological, and mental loss that is equivalent to that of a human that dies… often it is equal to the tragic loss of a child or sibling. Often it is harder than losing a human connection and the healing is similar, if not more difficult. But why? After all, pets don’t speak our language and they are just a hold short term role in our long lives… right?

Part of the reason is, that from the moment we bring that pet into our world, we are in the midst of a countdown to their death. That may seem morbid and strange, but deep down we all know that this creature is has a lifespan of 10 to 15 years at the most… and we will more than likely outlive them. So that thought is haunting us, it exists in our brain at all times. The more attached we become, the more ingrained they are in our lives, the more love we feel (and receive) in this two way relationship, the more of a child/less of an animal they become, the harder losing them hits us.

If our pets dies unexpectedly, then we grieve that loss and start to wonder what we could have done “differently” that would have avoided their death. We feel the loss of companionship, love, the missing daily routines they created, the devotion they brought, and the impact on our lives their absence brings. It is devastating.

Even worse is when a pet parent has to choose to end their fur babies life through euthanasia. Any of us that have had to make the “logical” choice to help a suffering animal take that difficult step to death know that the choice hangs over you forever. We know in our hearts that this was the right thing to do and help our precious children, the ones we’ve loved for so long and so well, find peace and end the pain and suffering they feel. If all of this is true, then why does it hurt so badly and so long after they are gone? To simplify that question we point to two things… it’s all the memories that flood your mind, accompanied with the hole that their loss leaves in so many key parts of your life. After all, we’ve established just how many of your decisions surround your pets… how much of your life is tied up in their need and upkeep… how many connections exist between you and the animal… how dependent you become on each other… and just how deeply their unconditional love satisfies needs inside you and helps you cope with daily life on so many levels. If you think about it, if they have been a constant source of comfort in life’s most difficult moments for a long as you’ve known them. However, at this time of great loss and sadness, during the grief that is created by their passing, your sources of comfort and strength is not there to help you. This only proves the depth of their loss, and deepens your sadness.

The 7 Stages of Grief

Feeling the devastation of the loss of your pet is normal and it’s okay to feel these things. You will likely have the same roller-coaster of emotions and reactions that humans feel with any death, and maybe even more intensely based on our reasoning above. Physiologists have identified 7 different stages that you will pass through when your pet dies. If you have experienced a special pets death in your life, if you honestly examine those months after the passing, you can likely find that you passed through each of these stages in your coping with the loss… and it’s okay that you did, in fact it’s normal.

  • 1) Shock & Denial – even when it’s expected, when you know it’s coming, when you’ve watched the slow decline and you think you’ve come to terms with their inevitable passing… the weight of the loss in your everyday life, the realization that they will not be there when you open the door, the missing pieces of that relationship, will all hit you like a ton of bricks. It can be a physical loss that you experience through shock and nausea. It is an emotional feeling that overwhelms you because they are not next to you every minute you’re at home. You simply cannot cope with them not being there to comfort, entertain, support, annoy, or assist you. It’s the shock of their being gone that you refuse to accept or believe.

  • 2) Pain & Guilt – This is the heartache that creeps in, and the intense scrutiny of every moment from adoption to the last breath as you look for anything you did wrong, or any steps you could have taken to stop their passing. It’s irrational, it’s illogical, it’s futile, but it’s normal. We blame ourselves because WE didn’t do enough or weren’t good enough to save them… when the reality is that life is finite. They just didn’t outlive us like most human children do.

  • 3) Anger & Bargaining – You will be mad, we promise you that you will feel intense and uncontrollable anger. Anger with yourself, anger at your pet for leaving you, anger at whatever you believe controls the fate of all creatures in the world. You’ll pass beyond “what could I have done differently” and replace it with “let’s make a deal” in an attempt to bargain and cheat your way to the return of your pet. Once you come to terms that NOTHING is going to bring back your fur baby, and that almost all other pet owners have this exact same reaction to a pet death… you’ll move beyond this stage.

  • 4) Depression, Reflection, Loneliness – You’ll never forget the connection and love you felt for your pet… never. However, in the days after the loss you could feel the weight of the loss to the point of a mental and physical depression. Routines in your life that involved your fur baby will become painful, as they bring back memories that cause reflection. You’ll feel guilty as you smile about happy times you had together. You’ll feel extreme loss and loneliness that can’t be overcome with companionship from other humans or animals. Eventually this will morph into your allowing memories to be good things, part of an ongoing mind memorial of your pet.

  • 5) Adjustment to Life – Coping is never on a timeline, and handling the loss is different for every person. Heck, it’s even different for every animal you will lose. There will come a time when the sadness lessens, the thoughts of your missing pet will turn from negative to positive memories, your heart will slowly heal, and you’ll allow yourself to realize that no creature escapes death. You’ll normalize the fact that it was “their time” and hopefully absolve yourself of blame. You’ll find new routines replace the old ones with your pet, and life slowly moves forward. You’ll never forget, you’ll just allow yourself to accept the loss. This is not a betrayal, it’s an acceptance of reality.

  • 6) The New Normal – Firstly, you MUST allow yourself to fully feel the grief of the loss. You have to walk through the healing process to get to the healthy place that exists on the other side of sadness and blame. Allow yourself to release the pain, stop worrying about how family and friends view your grief over the loss. Ignore the “it’s just an animal” non-believers who feel their reminders that the loss was not of a human… so it somehow mattered less. Embrace the new routines, the positives in your life. Let the memories of your lost love one flow over you as a grateful reminder of the time you had together. You’ll find that the pain slowly subsides and a new path forward emerges. You’re not forgetting the love and devotion of your cherished fur babies, you’re seeing the loss for what it was… part of the inevitable circle of life.

  • 7) Acceptance & Hope – A new hope will grow inside of you. You’ll accept the death of your pet and allow yourself a path to happily live in your new normal existence. In a lot of cases, you’ll actually start to consider life with a new pet as a possibility. Maybe you’ll find yourself looking at other people and their pets and the sight will pull at that part of you that misses the closeness you had with your pet that passed away. You’ll allow your thoughts of adding a new pet to the home to be a joy, not a betrayal. After all, you saved and life and opened your world to the previous pet… and how wonderful was that life? The death of your fur child will be just a part of their life with you, not the main focus of that time. And in this realization, you’ll know that you’ve made it through to the other side of mourning. You see that you can’t discount how the two-way street of allowing another pet into your heart will be a huge benefit to both of you. Again, this is not forgetting your beloved fur kids… it’s not forgetting their life, good times, or devotion. It’s the recognition that life goes on for those that remain after a tragic death. Allow yourself to live in today and tomorrow, not trapped in the sadness of yesterday!

We hope this detailed explanation of the process of grief will help you understand what has happened to you in the past, to enjoy the present to it’s fullest, and to brace and prepare yourself to what will happen in the future. Just remember, what feels like a uniquely awful experience in your life is actually a normal reaction to death and is being experienced by countless others around you. That doesn’t make it easier, it just makes it normal and something that you will overcome and move past.

That’s all for this week’s Dog Blog. With the heat of summer coming to nearly every state, town, and neighborhood in the nation, please remember to protect your pets by providing cool comfortable areas to escape the sun, lots of fresh water to replenish their system and ward off heat stroke and dehydration, and to limit travel situations that will leave them trapped in a car where heat can quickly jump to over 120 degrees in minutes.  They would never leave you in a hot car, without water, or trapped in the heat… so don’t do it to them!

Until next week, our research team at Freddie Central wishes all of our readers a safe road to travel, a happy companion to walk the trails with, the ability to see all of the beauty that nature allows, and to always include your fur family in these joyous outings. Above all… always be Pet Friendly, FreddieSez!