Working Through Grief When a Beloved Pet Dies

Small black dog described in the articleIn January, I lost my best and dearest friend—my dog, Paco. Even though he was almost 15 years old, it was one of the most painful experiences of my life. In fact, it was so painful I needed six months until I could write about it. I considered not discussing this dark and depressing time in my life, as it would be so much easier in many ways to simply not talk about it. However, when I do speak about it, I realize just how helpful it is for other pet parents who have experienced this type of loss. So, in honor of Paco and all animal lovers, I share my experience to help you work through your grief in the healthiest way possible. I also offer some advice for others who seek to understand why this loss is so difficult for their loved ones.

First, let me address the proverbial elephant in the room. Many people, particularly those who do not feel connected with or attached to animals, may not understand why losing an animal companion is so difficult. I have heard countless times from well-meaning others that, because animals do not have as long of a life expectancy, this loss is expected and just a part of life. It is often followed by the comment, “You gave him/her a good life.”

Even while such observations may be factually true, comments like these can feel dismissive. Yes, with some exceptions, we all know our dogs, cats, or other animal children probably will not live as long as we will. Nonetheless, comments of this nature are not at all helpful. So if you know someone who recently lost a “fur baby,” please choose your words more carefully. Other phrases to avoid include, “Just get another dog,” or, when someone with a recent loss adopts another animal, “It’s a replacement!” No animal (or life, for that matter) can be replaced. For those of us who are pet parents, comments like these are akin to telling a person that their human child could be replaced by another.

Next, I would like to share why our fur babies are so important to us. Relationships between humans are complicated. With animals, the relationship is simple and straightforward. There is unconditional love between the person and animal. There is no tension or noise about who took out the trash, no betrayal, no disappointment. For me, the human-animal bond is the most pure and joyful experience in life.

When an animal companion dies, there are no mixed feelings as there might be with humans; joy and love are simply ripped from our lives. Aside from possible relief that an animal’s suffering has ended, there is no upside. There is just pain, depression, and heartache.

When an animal companion dies, there are no mixed feelings as there might be with humans; joy and love are simply ripped from our lives. Aside from possible relief that an animal’s suffering has ended, there is no upside. There is just pain, depression, and heartache.

Given these circumstances, I found it excruciating to grieve Paco’s death.

How to Cope with Your Grief

For those, like me, who have lost a beloved animal companion, I offer these thoughts:

  1. What you are feeling is real, valid, and painful. Take as much time as you need to grieve. Cry when you feel the urge. Do what you need to do and on your own timetable. Resist the urge to diminish or downplay your suffering, particularly if doing so is associated with feeling pressure because your loss was an animal and not a human.
  2. Understand that grief comes in waves. It is natural to feel numb at times and “normal” at others. You might continue to grieve for months or years. It is okay. The more you can allow yourself to experience your feelings, no matter what they might be, the easier it may be to get through the loss.
  3. Seek therapy or a support group. Therapy may be particularly useful if your grief results in difficulties getting through work or your personal life for an extended period. There are even grief groups specifically for pet loss.
  4. It is okay to adopt another animal. Some people may adopt another pet immediately, while others need more time. There is no right answer. Adopting sooner rather than later is not necessarily a sign you are not acknowledging your loss. If you adopt more quickly, you will still likely notice your grief. A new companion might allow you to reconnect with joy again, but it will not replace your lost loved one.

How to Help Others with Their Grief

For those wishing to offer support to someone who lost a beloved pet, I offer this advice:

  1. Avoid saying anything that could be considered dismissive. Such comments may include variations of:
    • “Dogs/cats/etc. do not live that long. This is just what happens. It is the circle of life.”
    • “You can get another pet.”
    • “You will get a replacement.”
    • “Sometimes you just need to put them to sleep.”
    • “It’s just an animal.”
  2. Do not pry for information about how the animal died or any other details. Sometimes people need space and time to grieve. Retelling the story can be too painful, especially in the beginning. Prioritize the grieving person’s wishes over your need to know.
  3. Refrain from telling the person how they should grieve. Everyone grieves differently; there is no right or wrong way and there is no schedule. If someone is depressed for an extended period, you can encourage them to look into grief counseling or a support group if it feels appropriate, but that suggestion must be made carefully and gently. Telling someone it has been long enough and they need to get over it is counterproductive and hurtful.
  4. Ask the person what they would like you to do (or not do). It is okay to ask the person what they need and how you can help. Sometimes a person will want to be left alone, sometimes they might need a hug, and sometimes they might need to talk. The more you can honor their wishes and needs, the more helpful it will be. And they will remember this kindness. Ultimately, it may strengthen your relationship with them.

I dedicate this piece to Paco Curiel (2002-2017), who taught me how to love fiercely, fearlessly, and deeply.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ashley Curiel, PsyD, therapist in Beverly Hills, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 29 comments
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  • bo

    bo

    August 10th, 2017 at 9:39 AM

    My dogs are my best friends. I don’t even want to have to consider that we will one day have to learn to live without them. They are like family to me.

  • Ashley Curiel, Psy.D.

    Ashley Curiel, Psy.D.

    August 11th, 2017 at 5:49 PM

    Thank you for reading and sharing!

  • Mollie G

    Mollie G

    August 15th, 2017 at 10:58 AM

    I lost my beloved Jack several years ago and still miss him everyday. I could not bear the thought of his ashes being stuck in a box in a corner of the closet. I learned how to put a tiny bit of ashes into pieces of art glass. I love having a candle holder and a paperweight that I can pick up and use and will be with me always. I now do this for others. It helps.

  • Sarah

    Sarah

    August 10th, 2017 at 11:45 AM

    Even though you try to prepare yourself for that loss which is inevitable there is no real way to ever fully prepare for that. It is the same with both people and with pets. You know that when they have dies the likelihood is quite great that they have gone on to a better place and you try to get some happiness out of the fact that they are no longer struggling with hurt.

    It can be hard though because we grow just attached to these pets as we do to our family in many instances and so you have to be willing to let yourself feel that overwhelming grief in the same way.

  • Ashley Curiel, Psy.D.

    Ashley Curiel, Psy.D.

    August 11th, 2017 at 5:50 PM

    Very well said, Sarah. Thank you for reading!

  • Chelsea

    Chelsea

    August 11th, 2017 at 3:04 PM

    My friends made me feel like I was such a loser when I lost my kitty last year. But he had been with me through thick and thin, the best of times and the worst of times. It hurt to no longer have him with me but all they could do was encourage me to go out and get a new pet. Like he was something that could just easily be replaced. I tried to explain to them that this went deeper than that for me, just as my friendships with them did too. In the end there are actually a few people that I don’t speak to anymore because of how they made me feel during this time. I thought that more of them would understand and would be there for me a little more than they actually were but I was wrong.
    This my friends is why I will always love my animals just a little more, because that love is always unconditional.

  • Ashley Curiel, Psy.D.

    Ashley Curiel, Psy.D.

    August 11th, 2017 at 5:54 PM

    I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m also sad to hear that your friends were not more compassionate. They really missed an opportunity to connect with you and help you heal.

  • Jody

    Jody

    August 11th, 2017 at 9:02 PM

    Thank for validating how I feel. I felt so silly being so sad after my 11 year old golden doodle died in July. I miss him so much!

  • Ashley Curiel, Psy.D.

    Ashley Curiel, Psy.D.

    August 14th, 2017 at 5:45 PM

    I’m so sorry for your loss, Jody. You are not silly at all! I am sending healing thoughts your way…

  • Kay

    Kay

    August 12th, 2017 at 8:30 AM

    Thank you for this article. I am simply devastated, and few really understand why my heart is just broken.

  • Ashley Curiel, Psy.D.

    Ashley Curiel, Psy.D.

    August 14th, 2017 at 5:47 PM

    I’m very sorry for your loss, Kay. Thank you for reading; I’m so glad it was helpful. I wish you the best as you heal.

  • Mary

    Mary

    August 12th, 2017 at 2:04 PM

    Thank you so much for writing this article. I recently lost my dog of 16 years, Pepe le Moko. 3 months earlier I lost my dog of 15 years, Tillie Mae. I am still grieving heavily. I still have 4 dogs and a cat and caring for them helps my healing process. But with your permission I would like to keep your article so I can show it to people whose comments sometimes hurt more than they console, no matter if said comments were well intentioned or not. You have so eloquently put into words what I have been struggling with since I lost my 19 year old childhood friend Snooy, when I was 21. Thank you so much, and bless you and your angel Paco.

  • Ashley Curiel, Psy.D.

    Ashley Curiel, Psy.D.

    August 14th, 2017 at 5:52 PM

    Thank you so much for your kind and thoughtful words, Mary. They really mean so much to me! I would be honored if you kept a copy of the article. My hope is that it can help people to understand what we go through when we lose our beloved animal family members. I’m sorry that people say such hurtful things. You are right – even when well-intentioned, those comments still sting very badly. I’m very sorry for the multiple losses you’ve experienced. I hope that you can find comfort and healing as you grieve.

  • Bobbi

    Bobbi

    August 12th, 2017 at 3:22 PM

    My Airedale, Skor died unexpectedly at 7 years old almost 3 months ago. She also was my emotional support animal and more!. This loss is worse than the death of my father in December and my godparents in January. It’s worse as a mental health professional because there’s sort of an underlying message that you are stoic, should stay sad for long and will get over it quickly. I felt bad/guilty for my co-workers that loved her. Thanks for sharing.🐾 Bigg Skor 7/12/09-5/16/17❤️
    (I started writing a blog called DoOnething.com if you want to read a few posts I wrote after Skor died.)

  • Ashley Curiel, Psy.D.

    Ashley Curiel, Psy.D.

    August 14th, 2017 at 5:57 PM

    Thank you for sharing, Bobbi! It is definitely difficult as a mental health professional. Sadly, some of the unhelpful comments I heard and mentioned in the blog post came from people who work in our profession! I’m glad you are writing about it. Thank you for sharing your writing with us! Sending you healing thoughts… I know Skor is still with you!

  • Mindy

    Mindy

    August 13th, 2017 at 7:25 AM

    My friend posted your article at the perfect time because a few days ago I lost my Oakley to cancer. I got her a few weeks before my husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Oakley helped me grieve through the loss of my husband and now (9 years later) I’m grieving for her. That grief is compounded with the guilt of having to euthanize her.
    I shared the grief, guilt and turmoil I was going through with my friends. Here it is if anyone is interested. The love for our 4-legged family member is real and it is deep. I feel sorry for the humans who will never experience that love.
    Sweet Oakley,
    I always tell people I rescued you… But there is no doubt in my mind that it was you who rescued me.
    You were the loyal and faithful friend those many, many nights that I cried myself to sleep. How many of my tears did you capture in your fur Oakley girl?
    When I ran away from home you rode shotgun, not knowing where we were going or why? How many miles do you think we rode together?
    You were my protector when someone you didn’t like got too close. I trusted your judgement when you felt they were a threat to me. How many monsters did you scare away?
    And when I decided we had both gotten too fat for our fur, you ran right alongside me, enjoying our jog much more than I ever did. How many dirt roads did we trek together my friend?
    For eleven years you have proven your love and devotion to me a hundredfold times a hundredfold. I will treasure your friendship forever and I’m grateful that Jordan talked me into ‘rescuing you’.
    And now it is time to reciprocate the same love, loyalty and courage that you’ve graced me with over the years. I just wish that God would give me the strength to do what needs to be done for you, sweet Oakley girl.
    Please forgive me my faithful friend…

  • Ashley Curiel, Psy.D.

    Ashley Curiel, Psy.D.

    August 14th, 2017 at 6:03 PM

    My heart breaks for you, Mindy. Thank you for sharing your feelings and experience. There are many of us who feel your grief, even though I know this is probably a very lonely time. I wish you comfort as you grieve.

  • Tabatha

    Tabatha

    August 14th, 2017 at 7:01 AM

    If someone makes you feel bad over losing a pet that meant so much to you, these are not the people that nyou need in your life.

  • Ashley Curiel, Psy.D.

    Ashley Curiel, Psy.D.

    August 14th, 2017 at 6:04 PM

    So true and well said, Tabatha! Thank you for reading and sharing.

  • Don

    Don

    August 15th, 2017 at 10:30 AM

    Thank you for writing this…. Last year I lost my beloved cat Callie. It still hurts (coming up to a year).
    You didn’t mention the guilt. I know she tried to tell me she was in trouble, but I was swamped and over looked it…
    Its getting better. I smile at her picture on my phone. But the grief comes back. Like now.

  • Ashley Curiel, Psy.D.

    Ashley Curiel, Psy.D.

    September 24th, 2017 at 6:02 PM

    Thank you so much for reading and sharing, Don. You are so right: guilt is a very real and difficult feeling in these situations. I’m very sorry for your loss and I’m sending you healing and comforting wishes.

  • Kelly

    Kelly

    August 15th, 2017 at 9:53 PM

    Thank you for writing this. It’s so very important. I love animals and work in rescue too. I’ve had so many losses. Each one brings grief a little bit different than the last one…. rats, mice, guinea pigs, dogs and horses. I have very few friends locally…. and some I would not even speak of it because I was not going to allow them to make my loss small. One ex friend basically interrupted my story…. I couldn’t believe it… but I learned, she is not my friend. I will take animals over humans any day. This article was so accurate for me. Animals are so precious, so in the moment, they naturally give. I feel bad for the people that get treated with less than loving kindness for their grief. It should not be that way…. animals are not less important than humans. But I feel overall, we do not do death well, people don’t know how to act, what to say and they want to avoid it. Then with animal death they seem to just open their mouth and put their foot in it. So I don’t even like to share what happened. I usually write an email to my friends all about my pet that died, they can reply or not reply and I usually know who will and who won’t. I write the email for my pet, I feel it’s important to know they died, as important as knowing they were here. I have so many that I miss so much and they each have taken part of my heart.

  • Ashley Curiel, Psy.D.

    Ashley Curiel, Psy.D.

    September 24th, 2017 at 6:08 PM

    Thank you so much for reading and sharing, Kelly. I’m very sorry not only for the multiple losses you’ve experienced, but the insensitivity you’ve received during times that were already very difficult. I think you are totally right about people not knowing how to handle death in general; I agree that it makes people uncomfortable. And that does seem to just be worse when a beloved animal companion dies. I hope we all continue to find more human friends who can understand and provide empathy. Also, thank you for all the rescue work you do with animals!

  • holly

    holly

    August 16th, 2017 at 6:13 AM

    thank you for this article, it was wonderful!

  • Ashley Curiel, Psy.D.

    Ashley Curiel, Psy.D.

    September 24th, 2017 at 6:09 PM

    Thank you so much, Holly!

  • Jayne

    Jayne

    September 6th, 2017 at 9:26 PM

    A very good friend of mine pointed me to this article. My lovely 14 1/2 year old whippet was euthanized just yesterday. He was such an athlete. He ran like the wind, he swam, he jumped in the air to catch frisbees. Towards the end, he could barely walk. It was heartbreaking. It was also the hardest decision I had to make, to euthanize him. But I know it was the right decision. He didn’t want to live that way. He would stare at me, and I felt like he was questioning me as to why he couldn’t get out of bed by himself, why he stumbled when he walked.
    Thank you for this article.

  • Ashley Curiel, Psy.D.

    Ashley Curiel, Psy.D.

    September 24th, 2017 at 6:13 PM

    My heart goes out to you, Jayne. The decision to euthanize has to be one of the most difficult decisions one faces in life. It is beyond heartbreaking and excruciatingly painful. Sending healing and comforting wishes your way during this difficult time….

  • Mark

    Mark

    September 13th, 2017 at 4:20 PM

    Thank you for that helpful article. I lost my beloved calico Callie just two days ago & I’m experiencing a wide range of feelings; guilt, depression, loneliness & heartache. I miss her dearly!

  • Ashley Curiel, Psy.D.

    Ashley Curiel, Psy.D.

    September 24th, 2017 at 6:16 PM

    I’m so glad that the article was helpful, Mark. And I’m very sorry for your loss. All of these feelings are totally valid and normal, but so painful. Sending you comfort and peace during this very difficult time…

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