Chances are good that you live with a furry friend. According to the 2021-2022 APPA National Pet Owners Survey, 90.5 million homes — that’s 70% of U.S. households — own a pet.
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“Many times we adopt pets because we’re struggling ourselves, and we need that companionship. During the pandemic, or during other difficult times in your life, you often hear, ‘This pet got me through such a difficult part of life.’ That emotional connection to your pet is so vital.”
Given how much comfort pets bring, it’s understandable that losing them can be emotionally devastating. It can bring on physical symptoms, too. “Our animals become a part of our family,” says Dr. Sullivan. “They provide unconditional love and support, which is something that people don’t get from a lot of different places.”
As an example, she cites how excited pets often are to see you when you return home after being away. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve been gone for two hours or two days, the way that they greet you is just so beautiful,” says Dr. Sullivan. “It’s like you’re their world.”
Losing this unconditional love is understandably very difficult. “As humans, we need to feel that love and connection and to know that something views you in such a special way,” she adds. “That’s why it becomes so painful when we lose our animals.”
Understandably, it’s perfectly normal that grieving the loss of a pet from euthanasia can be much more difficult. “We want to see a pet death occur naturally, when they are at a ripe old age,” she says. “But part of the problem is their lives are so short. You never get enough time with your pet.”
Euthanasia is often the right decision for your pet, so they’re no longer hurting. But knowing a health decision you made led to their death can add extra layers of guilt and exacerbate your pain and grief.
“You certainly don’t want to see your pet suffer,” says Dr. Sullivan. “But there is that grief that’s associated with that guilt, and questioning yourself: ‘Am I making the right decision?’ That’s why it’s important to make that decision with your trusted medical professionals and other family members.”
Sullivan stresses that grief isn’t “one size fits all” after a death. In other words, it’s impossible to compare your reaction to losing a cherished pet versus losing a loved one. “For some people, grieving a pet is more difficult,” she says. “For other people, grieving a human is more difficult. For some people, both are very, very difficult. But I don’t think a pet death causes less grief than a human one.”
However, because a pet is such a treasured member of your family, it’s not out of the ordinary to feel a death very deeply. “It depends on your relationship with a pet,” adds Dr. Sullivan. “Pets are a part of your life. They provide that additional support and love, and they’ve gotten you through some very difficult times. And so in some cases, grieving a pet is even more difficult than grieving a human being.”
As with grieving a loved one, dealing with the loss of a pet takes time. Here’s what to keep in mind:
Dr. Sullivan says being an emotional wreck after a pet dies is completely OK.“There have been times when patients have been in my office absolutely more devastated by the loss of their pet, or by having to make the decision to euthanize a pet, than about anything I’ve ever seen them upset about,” she notes.
This extreme reaction to loss goes back to the idea that pets are part of our family. “They may be the most important thing to a person, honestly,” says Dr. Sullivan. “We have to have to normalize that this grief is real.”
Experts often explain grief using the Kübler-Ross model, which outlines five different phases you go through: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. (Dr. Sullivan prefers to use “adaptation” over acceptance: “Acceptance is more passive, whereas becoming more adaptive is more active. It lets us ask, ‘What can we still do?'”)
Still, your journey through these phases can be different, even from one day to the next. “There’s no consistent way that you approach grief, denial, anger, bargaining, or any of those phases,” Dr. Sullivan explains. “Each person moves through these stages at their own unique time and in their own unique way, and they can go back and forth. It’s not a linear phase.”
“What’s important is that we recognize that people are experiencing these feelings, and we support them and guide them in each of these different domains of emotion,” she adds.
Physical memorials are one of the easiest ways to remember a pet. When Dr. Sullivan’s family lost a beloved Yorkshire terrier, Reiley, the vet sent them sympathy cards and gave them a printout of the dog’s paw and muzzle prints alongside a poem called The Rainbow Bridge.
Dr. Sullivan also put together a memorial photo book, and she still keeps the terrier’s collar and tags hung in a special place of honor in her house. Her family also created a special place in their backyard near where he’s buried. “We have a space set up with a special flower that blooms year after year for him, and it has a little statue with his name on it, so we can go back there and look at it,” she says.
Some people prefer to grieve privately, out of the public eye. However, for those who find solace in talking to other people, Dr. Sullivan says joining a support group can be helpful. These can be social media-based spaces for grieving or even in-person groups.
Losing a fuzzy buddy affects everybody in your household. Dr. Sullivan says you might have to comfort your other pets, as they are also feeling grief. “If you have multiple pets in the household, they’re going to grieve the loss of their companion.”
Kids might also need extra support, as losing a pet might be their first personal experience with death. “This may be their first opportunity to really lose somebody,” says Dr. Sullivan. “We have to make sure that we help support them in situations of grief, death and dying. It’s very new to them, and it can be very scary to them.”
Above all, keep in mind that coping with the loss of a pet takes time. You may not get another pet right away — and, even when you do welcome another pet into your family, things will still take an adjustment period. “In the end, you realize your pet wants you to be happy,” says Dr. Sullivan. “I don’t think you ever move on — you move forward, and the relationship you have with each pet is different. No one’s going to replace that.”