Teen Breathe

How to cope with the sudden death of a pet

Current estimates suggest that over half of the world’s population share their homes and hearts with a non-human companion, meaning that literally millions of people across the globe are experiencing the many benefits and joys of pet ownership. Sadly, though, no pet lives forever. Although the majority of animal companions live out their expected lifespan, occasionally, a cherished pet dies before their time. Losing a pet unexpectedly can be a shock, and it’s understandably difficult to deal with. So, what can you do if you’re facing a sudden pet bereavement?
WORDS: Victoria Pickett
ILLUSTRATION: Veronika Timokhina

Why there’s no one way to grieve for a pet

In the immediate aftermath of any loss, it’s normal to experience a whole range of feelings. Along with sadness, there might be a sense of injustice, futility, anger and even guilt.

Kirsty Godsell, an accredited pet bereavement counsellor based in Dorset in the UK, says its vital to remember that there’s no right way to grieve: ‘There’s no time limit, and everyone’s grief looks different. Some process quietly, contemplatively… Some will vocalise…’

However you feel, be gentle with yourself as well as other family members who are also sharing in your grief.

Why it can be psychologically hard to accept a beloved pet’s death

Humans naturally like to make sense of the world, so when a pet dies suddenly and seemingly without reason, it can be difficult to accept. Feelings of bafflement and disorientation are common and you may find yourself repeatedly going over what happened, looking for someone or something to blame.

If this sounds familiar, try to step back and look at events rationally. Accidents and illnesses are, unfortunately, a part of life and it’s unlikely you could have done anything to prevent your pet’s death.

What can be controlled is how we love and look after our animal companions when they’re with us, so take comfort in knowing how much you cherished your pet. And know, too, how happy the days they spent with you will have made them, especially given how great animals are at living in the moment.

Why you shouldn’t bottle up your emotions after a pet’s death

All of your thoughts and feelings are valid, and mourning a pet is similar to other forms of grief. Annalisa de Carteret, Pet Bereavement Support Service Manager at the animal welfare charity Blue Cross, in Oxfordshire in the UK, says it’s important to recognise this fact: ‘You may feel like you’ve lost your best friend. There are lots of emotions attached to pet loss. It can feel very lonely and confusing.’

Finding someone you can talk to about your loss can help fight feelings of isolation – perhaps a friend has been through a similar experience or a family member is a good listener. A trusted, sympathetic ear can be reassuring, and speaking out loud can help to process the shock. If talking isn’t your thing, try writing, walking, dancing – whatever it is that makes you feel calmer and more content.

How to live with and accept the loss of a pet

Queen Elizabeth II once said: ‘Grief is the price we pay for love,’ which describes the bittersweet nature of loss. As raw and as painful as it feels now, with time, it will become possible to look back on all your memories with affection.

‘You’re not expected to get over the loss of a pet,’ says Kirsty. ‘It’s better to learn to live with the grief, knowing that as you work on your understanding and acceptance of loss, it will become easier to deal with.’

As well as cherishing memories of all the good times you spent together, it can be a great comfort to think of the things your pet achieved in their life. The fact they’re being mourned indicates just how much happiness and joy they gave while they were alive – and they made your world a better place.

Some ideas for celebrating the life of your pet

Pick a picture: Frame a special photo of your pet and choose somewhere to display it. If they lived indoors, perhaps it could be close to their favourite spot in the house.

Find the words: Writing a letter or poem to your pet can be cathartic, especially if it wasn’t possible to say goodbye. Know that your pet will have felt the love and affection you describe every day of their lives.

Follow their lead: Remember your pet by honouring any life lessons they taught you. Perhaps they were cheerful, stoic or courageous. Animals have a different approach to life and taking on board their attitudes can be uplifting and enlightening.

Annalisa and Kirsty suggest creating a memory box, planting a bush, painting a portrait or holding a small ceremony. Have a chat with other members of your household and choose whatever feels right.

It takes time to learn to live alongside the death – be it sudden or not – of a much-loved pet.

For more help and support, visit bluecross.org.uk or cats.org.uk

You can read more articles about mental health and processing emotions in the latest issue of Teen Breathe magazine.