The hard truth is this: A pet’s death can be as devastating to some individuals as a human loss. Though I have yet to lose anyone from my immediate family (you know, parents, siblings, etc), I believe that the loss of my two cats will come only second to the loss of my husband. Walking with them to the ends of their lives was the hardest thing I've ever had to do. Can you relate? Then you're not alone.
The problem is that the types and numbers of support systems available to you may be far fewer than if a a human being you know dies. When that happens, there is generally a whole ton of support resources loved ones of the deceased can access. Family and friends gather immediately to help you endure the bereavement period with gifts of meals, shoulders to cry on, and kind words. Many of those supporters are still there in the weeks and months that follow. There’s also plenty of professional help available for survivors who struggle to work through the stages of grief.
But try to look for community programs for pet loss or medical practitioners who are sympathetic to your pain and you may run into some walls. Friends may offer a word of compassion immediately following the day of passing, but are likely to forget about it in the days and weeks to come. Worse yet, they may say inappropriate things, leaving you feel as though they've failed you. I had several people, for instance, who asked immediately after Tia died when I'd get a new cat to replace her. I had others try to suggest that I would save money and ask whether I was relieved of the burden she was. Wow. It was hurtful and made me feel alone and unsupported.
What's more: when our cats and dogs and fish and turtles die, they leave in our hearts a gaping hole. We rely on our pets for companionship and unconditional love. For those who rely on animal companions for emotional support and service, not only do they lose a beloved creature in their lives, they often lose some of their independence as well. However, society still does not recognize a pet’s death with the rituals or support needed for people to properly work through their grief.
If you're like me, and you can relate to some of these heartaches, you're experiencing what is know as “disenfranchised grief”, a term that was first shared by Kenneth Doka, PhD in his book “Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow.” This concept refers to what people experience when their loss is not acknowledged or is dismissed and trivialized, such as when a pet dies. There are no funerals, bereavement days, or throngs of family and friends dropping casseroles and cards on the doorstep. All of this may leave you feeling abandoned and rudderless in trying to navigate the choppy waters of pet grief.
Where can we turn? With any form of support, the best place to look is toward someone who has been there, done that, and understands.
Where to Look For Pet Loss Grief Support
Locating people who are sympathetic to your unique pain and who are able to support you through your loss can be a challenge. We'll help you build a web of support that will give you quick access to a list of people who may be able to assist you through the process of bereavement.
1. Start with your Existing Circle of Support
Friends and family are usually who we turn to when the world feels dark and lonely. Think through your list of people you spend most of your time with - is there anyone within this inner circle (or just outside) who shares your passion for animals? If so, then this would be the person to contact now. He or she can be there to let you cry and talk incessantly if needed and even shed some tears along with you. During your initial stages of grief and shock, this person can be a go-to - someone to help with tasks that might be too difficult for you, such as picking up the pet’s ashes, removing and storing any reminders from the house (toys, food and bowls, cages, etc.). Don’t hide your grief from those closest to you. Let them help.
2. Look into Local Pet Loss Support Groups and Therapists
When your existing friends and family members are unavailable to provide you the support you need, it may be time to look outside your existing circles of support. We're building an extensive database of local support groups and therapists where you can find people who understand the pain of pet loss. You may be surprised at what you find.
One word of caution: Many conventional bereavement support groups offered by mental health professionals or non-profits are geared for loved ones of deceased humans. As such, a grieving pet parent like you may not find the type of support needed in one of those meetings. Instead, check out of growing repository.
And if there are no existing pet grief support groups in your community on our list, contact your veterinarian’s office to see if there are any support groups they might recommend. Another option is to connect with a local pet cemetery or other pet memorial service provider. Some of them may host meetings as well. Be sure to tell us of any that we've missed so that we can add them to our listings to help others in the future!
3. Search for Sympathetic Online Support Groups
If you are still struggling or you don’t have anyone to turn to who can understand, you might need to go in an entirely different direction. The world wide web may actually be a perfect place for you to find the caring and compassion you need. I've had many friends who've found comfort and understand in a virtual community. Online support groups are great for those who live in areas isolated from in-person support networks. One of my friends told me this story:
"I was able to write about my emotional roller coaster when I had to say goodbye to my cats. One woman, a complete stranger, wrote back with the most beautiful words of comfort and advice. She shared the Rainbow Bridge poem with me and helped me work through the guilt I felt about not recognizing the symptoms of kidney disease soon enough and whether I was making the right choice in euthanizing my kitty. It was exactly what I needed to hear at that moment."
We're building a database of online support groups as well so be sure to check out what's already out there to see if there's something that would be a good fit for you.
I hope these ideas will give you at least a start in your search for sympatic pet loss support. The grief from losing an animal friend is very real and can be quite profound. Don’t dismiss your feelings because society would lead you to believe it’s not a legitimate reason to mourn. Instead, find individuals who not only understand, but who can help you work through your bereavement and find the peace and acceptance to move on.
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Health Disclaimer: I’m passionate about wellbeing and health but I’m not a medical professional, nor am I a licensed therapist. Any content you read on this site is intended for inspiration and for information only – by not means am I providing medical advice. Please consult your certified professional for personalized recommendations on the mental health or physical health ideas I write about.