Dr. Eileen Callahan, Ph.D.: Pet Loss

On Losing a Pet

Losing a pet rarely gets the respect it deserves. One is supposed to get over the loss immediately, as it's not like it's a loss of a person. Yet, sometimes it is critical to remember that the pet's void is very real and perhaps the biggest void possible in a person's life. A pet is a day to day relationship of equal, loving co-dependency. It's a very healthy relationship. It's un-complicated and chosen. Not all human relationships can say the same.

It's important to take care of yourself during the mourning of a lost pet and avoid anyone who doesn't understand. You will love again, but let yourself grieve right now. There are rarely support groups or therapists specializing in this loss, but the stages of grief remain the same as a human loss, and should be considered:

  1. Shock is the first stage of numbness, disbelief and unreality.
  2. Denial is thoughts or words such as, “I don’t believe it -- It can’t be!”
  3. Bargaining involves making promises such as, “I’ll be so good if only I can awaken to find this hasn‘t happened” or “I’ll do all the right things if only…”
  4. Guilt is a hard stage and difficult to deal with alone. This is a normal feeling characterized by statements such as, “If only I had…If only I had not…” done or said or thought something. Guilt may ultimately be resolved by understanding that all of us are human beings who give the best and worst of ourselves to others. What they do with what we give is their responsibility.
  5. Anger is another very difficult phase, but it may be necessary in order to face reality and get beyond the loss. We all must heal in our own way and anger is a normal stage along the way.  However, you may feel guilty because you are angry at the person who died or because your life is continuing while his or hers is not.  If you don’t feel anger, don’t manufacture it!
  6. Depression may come and go and be different each time in length and/or intensity. Give yourself time to heal.
  7. Resignation means you finally believe the reality of the death.
  8. Acceptance and Hope come when you finally understand that you will never be the same, but you can go on to have meaning and purpose in your life.

Sometimes the trauma of a pet loss can trigger other psychological pain that was successfully buried prior to the loss. This can be a healthy thing- it can make you take stock in your life and look at your past, present and future with insight. If the pain of the pet loss is unbearable and you fell "stuck" in the pain, it might be a good time to meet with a therapist to talk about why the pain is persisting. Crying is good, grief work is good, and this may be a good time to let yourself be vulnerable and aware.

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