Grieving the Loss of a Pet: How To Cope

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14 min read

Updated - Nov 17th, 2022

The loss of a pet is probably the most dreaded part of pet ownership. Our pets are our family members and best friends. They offer unconditional love and never lie, cheat, or hurt us. They often sleep in our beds and are the center of our daily routines. When a pet dies, it leaves a huge hole in our lives and homes.

As a senior rescue owner, advocate, and educator, the death of a pet is something I’ve experienced more regularly than I’d wish. This year alone, both of my beloved senior rescue dogs died within just a few months of each other – one in January and one in May. 

In my decades of personal experience as a pet owner, I’d actually never had to euthanize one of my beloved dogs – they had all died of natural causes. However, both times this year I had to make that difficult decision to send them across the rainbow bridge. 

I was devastated, to say the least. But one thing I was very thankful for was that I had no guilt. As their caregiver, I give my pets everything I have to ensure their well-being and happiness – because they give us more than we could ever imagine. In return, I make a promise to them: to never put my desire for “more time” over the quality of their life. Because I know when push comes to shove, I will always want more time. Who wouldn’t? I believe that ensuring that they do not suffer unnecessarily is what we owe them for everything that they give to us. 

Have the hard discussions before the hard decisions

My biggest piece of advice for making difficult decisions about any furry friend is this – Have the hard discussions before you need to make the hard decisions. 

Before we were in a time of crisis making the dreaded euthanasia decision, I was sure to discuss my stance on this with any veterinarians, specialists, etc. that were a part of my dogs’ care team, so that when the time came, they could give me their honest thoughts based on what they knew my wishes were. 

Talking over my wishes and plans made the grieving process much simpler because it was not complicated by the if’s and when’s and what’s.  That’s not to say grieving the loss of a member of the family was easy – it was still a roller coaster. My sense of purpose was gone, my bed was empty, and my mental health was a daily challenge. 

Even still, I was thankful for so many coping opportunities available to me, and sharing them with you here is my way of hopefully making the grieving process of your loved ones less painful.

So, how do you cope with the loss of a pet? There are so many resources and ways to grieve. I spoke to a few of the resources I turned to in my grief to share some of their most valuable information with you.   

Finding community with Dr. Lisa Lippman

Dr. Lisa Lippman is a veterinarian and co-founded Pet Loss Community in 2020 with Dr. Monica Tarantino. I’ve known Dr. Lippman for many years and when I lived in NYC, she was my vet. In the years since I moved away, she co-created Pet Loss Community, which offers online support, a community support group, and one-on-one support with a grief specialist as part of its services to those struggling with pet grief. I re-connected with her to get her advice on broaching this difficult topic.

Why was Pet Loss Community founded? 

Dr. Lippman: There aren’t that many resources out there for people experiencing the loss of a pet or feelings of anticipatory grief. Our pets are an integral part of our family, yet there is a lack of support and understanding for those going through this very real loss.  

How many people have been helped by your services?  

Dr. Lippman: Hundreds of grieving pet parents have found solace in our online, group, and individual support. 

What’s a great example of how your services have specifically helped someone with their lost pet?  

Dr. Lippman: It’s hard to pick just one story, our members come from all walks of life and are at different stages of their grief journey. Some people have just recently lost their beloved pet, while others have found solace in our program years after their pet died. There are also folks whose pets have just received a terminal diagnosis. Our members are millennials and retirees, men and women, dog owners, and cat owners. There’s a huge range, but the differences don’t seem to matter – they’re all united in their love for their animals and have found ways to connect and heal together. 

Are there any costs associated with these services? 

Dr. Lippman: We offer a variety of means of support, from $9.00 per month for our online pet loss support group to our individualized, one-on-one sessions with grief support specialists for $149. We also offer two monthly group sessions, held over Zoom for $39 per month with our group support plan. 

From your perspective as a vet, what is a helpful tip for how to manage the difficult end-of-life decisions for pets?  

Dr. Lippman: I think communication with your vet is key. They can help offer objective, sound advice in terms of making end-of-life decisions. The emotions surrounding these choices are incredibly complex and individualized and having someone with medical knowledge and plenty of experience can help pet parents make the best decision for themselves and their pets. The best choice isn’t always the easiest choice, and it all comes down to their quality of life. It takes both medical expertise and pet-parent intuition to determine the best course of action.  

Navigating the pet grief cycle with Dr. Katie Lawlor

Dr. Lippman actually led me to my next resource, Dr. Katie Lawlor, Psy.D, Grief and Loss Psychologist, and Animal Advocate. When my two dogs died within just a few months of each other earlier this year, I was definitely struggling. Dr. Lawlor and I had a very meaningful and helpful session talking about grief, what were normal feelings to have, how to move forward, and more. I asked Dr. Lawlor to share her most impactful tips, and the answers to her most frequently asked questions. 

Dr. Lawlor shared the two questions she has been asked a lot recently, as well as her answers:

How does the pet grief cycle differ from, say, the one for a person, a human? Are the steps mostly the same? 

Dr. Lawlor: With fellow humans, especially loved ones, our relationships are complex; they are full of highs and lows, break-ups and misunderstandings, arguments and hurt feelings. Our pets however can always make us feel better, even on our worst days. We come to rely on their unconditional devotion, and the meaning and fulfillment they bring into our lives – all without saying a word. The deep love and strong bonds we have with our companion animals can thus evoke profound grief when they pass.

Also, we must remember that we don’t solely mourn their passing; we also feel robbed of all the future moments we won’t have with them physically here. I think this is especially true if we expected them to live longer than they did, or if their death was sudden or tragic.

Here in the 21st century, pets seem to mean more for our positive well-being than at any time in recorded history. Maybe it’s all the social media! What are some ways that people like me channel our grief into something positive? 

Dr. Lawlor: Even when we are deep in grief, we still have so much to offer. When we do acts of kindness for others, we feel a sense of purpose. For example, we can donate extra sheets, blankets, and towels to an animal shelter; volunteer for an hour at an animal welfare organization; or offer to take our elderly neighbor’s dog for a walk. Gentle reminder: often the warmest, most heartfelt gestures do not cost any money.

While grief manifests differently for each of us, it can provide us with an opportunity to reflect on and prioritize what’s most important to us in life in the wake of our loss. Doing so can also instill hope, strength, and the ability to cope with what feels impossible at times. A good place to begin is to be deeply honest with yourself about what you truly care about. To get started, you might want to consider questions such as:

  • What do I consider a fulfilling life?
  • What am I proud of?
  • Who do I want to become
  • What inspires me?
  • What is meaningful to me?
  • What do I want my legacy to be?
  • What do I want my pet’s legacy to be?
  • In what environments do I feel like I can be genuine?
  • Who and what do I love the most?

Dr. Lawlor also encourages practicing self-care during grief. She says the following in her Pet Grief & Loss Healing Guide: 

“Engaging in consistent mindfulness activities has been shown to reduce physical feelings of pain and muscle tension, decrease the frequency of negative thoughts, and promote a sense of calm and control. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the founders of mindfulness-based stress reduction, describes the concept as ‘paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.'”

– Dr. Katie Lawlor

Dr. Jack Kornfield, a clinical psychologist and prominent author on the subject, suggests a 4-step process to begin incorporating mindfulness into your daily life:

  1. Choose a calming place where you can sit comfortably and without disturbance, perhaps a quiet corner in your home or a peaceful spot in your garden. Place a cushion or chair there for your use. Embrace creating this safe, cozy space for yourself by perhaps dimming the lights and lighting a candle, or playing a favorite piece of classical music.
  1. Establish a regular time to practice that fits smoothly into your schedule and is during your preferred time of the day. For example, if you are a morning person, you may wish to observe a few moments right after getting out of bed while sipping your coffee. If you are more of an evening/night person, perhaps establish a wind-down bedtime routine. Try to protect at least 5-10 minutes each day without interruption. As this ritual becomes ingrained in your day, you can sit for longer and/or more frequently.
  1. Find a relaxed posture in which you can sit up comfortably and that allows for taking deep breaths. Let your body feel supported against the earth beneath you, your hands gently resting in your lap or by your side, and your eyes closed or softly gazing at a single spot.  
  1. Begin to bring your attention to the sensations of your breath. Take a few deep breaths as you start to sense the freshness or coolness in the nostrils or throat, the expansion of the chest, or the rise and fall of the belly. Notice how the soft sensations come and go with each new breath. Your mind will probably wander, and when it does, simply return it back to the next breath. No matter how many times this happens, gently and directly return to feel the next breath. 

In time, this practice will gradually allow you to calm down and center yourself using your breath. There will be many ups and downs in this process, as there are both stormy days and sunny days in nature; but both contain beauty. The only objective is that you just stay with it. As you do, you will find that mindfulness focused on the breath helps to connect with and quiet your body, heart, and mind.

Memorializing our pets’ lives with Adelle Archer

The last resource I want to share is one that continues to bring me great comfort. Eterneva creates diamonds from the ashes and/or hair of loved ones, whether they be pets or humans. I met founder Adelle Archer at an event not long after I lost my dog Chloe – the dog who began The Kardoggians account. 

Knowing that Chloe, who was a proverbial diamond in real life, could become a real diamond that I could hold close to my heart forever immediately brought me so much comfort, smiles, and tears of relief. Chloe had been my “wing woman” and to know she could still be with me as I journeyed forward in life carrying on the mission she worked so hard towards – getting senior dogs adopted and helping hospice dogs – I knew it was the perfect way to honor her and keep her present in my life. 

When and why was Eterneva founded?

Ms. Archer: Eterneva was founded in 2015 by myself and Garrett Ozar with the mission of bringing brightness and meaning to loss. We are changing the way our society handles grief by celebrating remarkable lives. There is no moving on, only moving forward. By creating genuine lab-grown diamonds from cremated ashes, hair, and other carbon-rich material, we’re giving people the opportunity to move forward with their loved ones. 

How many diamonds have you made so far?

Ms. Archer: To date, Eterneva has created stunning diamonds for over 3,000 remarkable people and pets – and counting!

What’s a great example of how these diamonds have helped someone?

Ms. Archer: Our customers are incredible, and each and every one of them are so special to us! We love to see and share full circle moments, which are when we can look back at the completion of someone’s diamond journey and see the growth they have made. Because when someone engages with us, they’re not having the best day of their life. How could they when they are grieving the loss of someone who was so important to them? But, as they give themselves permission to feel and experience the diamond journey for everything it’s meant to be – sharing stories and pictures and making genuine connections with our team – when they welcome their loved one’s Diamond home, although they may not realize it right away, they’ve grown, too. 

What does it cost to turn your pet into a diamond?

Ms. Archer: The investment for a unique diamond begins at $2,999 and varies by size and color. For a quote regarding what someone may have in mind, we invite them to speak to one of our knowledgeable Eterneva Care Team members! We are always happy to walk people through the process and answer any questions they may have.  

Remember, there is no wrong way to grieve

Loss and grief are different for everyone. We all do it in our own way and it can come and go at times – not always making sense. Grief isn’t linear. Some days you’re doing great with it all and then sometimes life just levels you. I have found it’s the things you can plan for that are the most manageable, like special occasions and birthdays. It’s really the things that just take you by surprise, like coming across something of theirs stuck at the back of a shelf or being somewhere they would have loved, that are the most difficult to get through.

I find putting words to the feelings – whether it be talking to friends and loved ones, or posting about it on social media so the feeling doesn’t just live inside your head and heart – can be extremely helpful in a difficult time. 

Having a clipping of their fur or a paw print taken at the time of their passing can become a cherished artifact to hold on to. Once they’re gone you won’t have that opportunity again so make sure to ask for them from your vet.

How to be there for a friend who has lost a pet

What can you say or do for a friend, family member, coworker, etc. that has recently lost a pet? Let’s start with the don’ts… 

  • Don’t tell them it’s just an animal. 
  • Don’t ask when they are getting a new pet. 
  • Don’t second guess their decisions.
  • Don’t get them a new pet as a surprise.
  • Don’t compare their pain to another’s that you deem worse.
  • Don’t minimize their pain.

What do you do to help someone cope with the loss of a pet? Whether you talk to them in person, by phone, text, email or by sympathy card, words matter when talking about the loss of a pet’s life. Tell them… 

  • I’m here to talk whenever you need.
  • Nothing I say can make you feel better, but I’m here for you.
  • They were part of your family.
  • What can I do to help you?
  • They were lucky to have you.
  • Losing a part of your family is never easy.
  • They were lucky to have you.
  • If you think they might enjoy it, share your favorite memory, picture, or video of the pet.

In the weeks and months that follow, be sure to check on them. While the immediate loss is over, it’s when the smoke clears that your loved one may need to talk the most. 

Additional resources:

Dorie Herman

Dorie is a graphic designer and the human behind Instagram celebrities, The Kardoggians. She is on the boards of Susie's Senior Dogs and Foster Dogs Inc. and loves spending time with her recent rescue, Tammy Faye Barker.
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