By Alexandra Anastasio
For anyone grieving the death of a pet, the pain can be overwhelming. Many dog owners view their canine companions as much more than an animal — to them, they’re members of the family. Losing your best friend is heartbreaking and can leave behind a profound sense of emptiness and loss.
Grieving the Loss of a Pet
Each person deals with grief differently, but that doesn’t make the death any less painful. Some people find it hard to express their feelings because not everyone around them understands the gravity of the loss, especially if they’ve never had a dog of their own.
Lynette Whiteman, a caregiver who runs a therapy dog program in New Jersey for the elderly and individuals with dementia, has learned through her professional work and personal losses that having a supportive family member or friend to talk to helps with the grieving process. “People who are not dog lovers don’t understand what the big deal is, and that can be very damaging,” she says.
Moira Anderson Allen, author of “Coping with Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet,” adds, “If someone has never experienced this kind of relationship, they genuinely don’t know how important it is to those of us who have.”
In our time of sadness, what we hope for is someone who is compassionate, even if that person lacks the understanding of why we are grieving. But as Allen points out, it is sometimes difficult to find that support.
Heidi McBain, a licensed professional counselor based in Texas, suggests seeking out like-minded people who have been where you are. “Social media and online groups are good places to start,” she says. Also, private therapy and support hotlines and/or groups, offer a safe place to open up and connect with others going through similar experiences.
At New York City’s Animal Medical Center, the Pet Loss Support Group provides an anonymous, judgment-free zone for anyone grieving a pet. “It’s important to understand you shouldn’t grieve alone,” says Mary Brosnan, a social worker and leader of the group. “The most important thing you can get out of a group is the sense that there is nothing wrong with you for feeling the way you do.”
Memorializing Your Dog
In addition to seeking support, there are easy ways you can honor your beloved pet’s memory.
- Commemorate his life: One of the best ways to find closure is to hold a memorial service. Whether you choose to bury your dog or scatter his ashes in a place that holds special meaning, a memorial service gives you and your family the chance to say goodbye.
- Create a legacy: Plant a tree or flowers in your dog’s favorite spot; name a star in his honor; create a shadow box with items like a collar, toy, or blanket; have a portrait rendered; or get creative with your dog’s photographs by making a scrapbook. “These are some of the ideas I’ve shared with people I work with,” says Afton Strate, a licensed clinical marriage and family therapist.
- Start new traditions: On your dog’s birthday, acknowledge his life by volunteering at a local shelter or donate to an animal charity in his name, Strate suggests. Aug. 28 marks Rainbow Bridge Remembrance Day, so take a moment to look back on the joy, laughter, and unconditional love he brought to your life.
- Professional photos: Having photographs of your dog is priceless, especially after he passes away. Jenna Regan, a professional pet photographer in the Dallas and Fort Worth area, often photographs dogs at the end of their lives. “I’ve had many clients hire me specifically to capture the last, and often first, professional photos of their dog,” she says. “My clients tell me that having these photos of happy moments together means a lot to them, and the experience plus the resulting images help them through the grieving process.”
Do Dogs Mourn?
When you lose a pet, it can be difficult for surviving pets, as well. Dr. Mary Burch, director of the AKC Family Dog Program and a certified animal behaviorist, points out that dogs demonstrate their grief in different ways. They may become lethargic and less active, have a decreased appetite, or stay close to the deceased animal’s bed or favorite spot.
Owners can help their surviving dog cope by giving him lots of love and attention. Dr. Burch suggests trying new activities together, like a basic training class such as AKC’s Canine Good Citizen program, or even a hike. The goal is to find things to share with your dog while you both mourn.
Just how long grief lasts varies for everyone. For some, bringing a new dog into the home sooner rather than later can help ease the pain. For others, it takes longer to open up their hearts and home again. Just remember, it’s completely natural to mourn the loss of a dog, and you’re never alone in your grief.