Across the United States, 66% of households include at least one pet. In New York City and the boroughs -- despite lack of space, high rents, and plenty of restrictions — we have 1.1 million pets, which translates to about one pet per every three homes.
If you have a pet, you probably consider them a part of your family, as do 97% of women and men in the US. You may also be part of the 51% who say that their pet is just as much a part of their family as a human member. In fact, because of the nature of city living, your pets may actually be your only “children.”
When you lose a pet, it’s as much of a loss — and sometimes more of a loss — than it is to lose a human family member. Humans are more complicated than other animals and don’t show us the devotion and unconditional love that our pets do.
Grief is a normal response to loss, especially to a death of someone you love as much as you love your pet. Those around you may not know how to respond to your grief. You may feel alone in your sadness: The one creature you could count on to console you without complications is no longer physically with you.
At The Soho Center for Mental Health Counseling in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, New York City, our sensitive counselors love their pets, too. We understand how devastating the loss of your pet can be and how it can transform every aspect of your life. Following are some ways to help lessen the pain and move forward.
Expect dumb responses from your people
Few people know how to respond to grief, especially to others’ grief. Even if your friends and family knew your pet and knew how much you loved them, they can’t really understand the depth of your loss.
They may try to comfort you with platitudes. Some of these are the same well-worn phrases that they use when a person dies, and they’re just as inappropriate and unhelpful then as they are with your pet.
If someone talks about “rainbow bridges” where you and your pet reunite after death, or tells you that, “it was their time to go,” or assures you that, “you’ll find another pet soon,” do your best to ignore the words and focus on the intent. They’re only trying to help you feel better or soothe their own fears about death.
Allow yourself time and space to grieve
Nobody knows how long it will take you to get over the loss of your pet. Grief doesn’t have a strict timeline. Depending on how attached you were to your love, how long you knew each other, and how deep your relationship was, the grief process could last days, months, or years.
Forgive yourself for feeling guilty
A common feeling after the death of a pet is guilt. “If only I’d noticed the tumor sooner, or fed them different food, or played with them more.” You may be the person who regrets the things you didn’t do or couldn’t do with a person or pet who passes, but you aren’t to blame for their death.
With a pet, though, you may also feel guilt about putting them to sleep. Maybe you think you waited too long, and your pet suffered unnecessarily. Or maybe you worry you euthanized them too soon and deprived them of a few more days or weeks of life.
It’s common to look back at important decisions we’ve made and try to second guess the outcome if we’d gone another way. However, you (and your vet) made the best decision you could with the information you had. It’s unfair to judge yourself when you couldn’t win either way.
Share your grief story
Talking about your pet and your last days together can help you create a narrative that assists in healing and moving forward. You can talk to friends and family who are good listeners. Or, you can write about your grief in a journal or blog.
If you don’t have a strong support system, you may benefit from grief counseling. A grief counselor helps you build a narrative about the love you gave and received from your pet. A new narrative helps you move into the future, strengthened and expanded by the memories of your pet and the love you shared.
Don’t be afraid to get the grief counseling you need and deserve because you “only” lost your pet. Death of a pet is a major loss and a major source of grief and sadness.
If you feel overwhelmed by sadness or guilt, contact our caring and sensitive team by phone or by using our online form for grief counseling today. We also offer telehealth counseling sessions.