Pet Loss & the Holidays
The “happy holidays” aren’t always full of joy and light for everyone. For many, this holiday season may be the first one they go through alone—without their loved animal companions that have been part of their joyful moments and memories for years.
Or perhaps you’re going through the emotions this year, faking a smile, but trying not to think about a pet who is struggling with a debilitating disease or maybe even nearing the end. The holidays are anything but “happy” for you. Here are a few tips to help you navigate a difficult time, and to ease your path through the grieving process.
The Pain and the Process
- Acknowledge the pain:
While this season can highlight feelings of loss and grief, you shouldn’t try to deny your feelings or try to put on a brave face for the world. According to Scientific American, the loss of a pet can be just as devastating as the loss of a loved person. However, our society does not have the same support systems in place to help people through this traumatic process.
- Express your grief:
Even though you’re through a dark time, your boss, coworkers, or maybe even your own family, won’t necessarily appreciate or be able to understand what you’re going through. However, we need social supports. We need to be open and vulnerable about our emotions. The simple act of expressing your feelings in words (maybe to a few trusted friends) will significantly improve your ability to process your grief in a healthy way.
How to Prepare
We don’t always have the benefit of having extra time to plan ahead, but if you do have some advance warning, here are some ways to ease the process.
Restructure your routines: Many people’s days and lives are structured around their pets. Whether it’s walking your dog or snuggling with your cat, you need to realize that your days are going to feel empty without these companions. Maybe it’s time to take up a new hobby, do some traveling, or reconnect with old friends.
What to expect: If you need to help your dog or cat through the process of putting them to sleep, here are some things to remember.
- Your veterinarian is the expert in medical care, but you are the daily witness of your pet’s quality of life. As much as it hurts you to think of letting your pet go, be mindful of the daily hurt and pain your pet may experience if you try to prolong their life by any means possible. As you discuss with your vet, keep in mind helpful resources like a “Quality of Life Scale.”
- The euthanasia process is designed to be as quick and painless as possible. Most veterinarians will administer a sedative through an IV, which calms your pet. You are in charge of this process, and if a vet does not accommodate your wishes, you can always go somewhere else.
- Should you stay with your pet until the very end or not? This really depends on your emotional health and stability. For some people, being there is a way to be a faithful friend until the end. For others, it’s just too much to take. You certainly don’t want to contribute to your pet’s stress by losing control. Talk with your vet and trusted friends about the best way to love your dog or cat in the last stages of your journey together.
- Some veterinary offices offer the option of coming to your home or bringing their services to your car. This can minimize the stress and pain (if mobility is a problem) for your pet.
How to Help Your Other Pets
You aren’t the only one affected by the loss of a pet. If you have other pets, they will feel the loss at some level and may express their confusion in various ways. There are some practical ways to help them cope and process the loss of their friend:
- Your other pets need extra love and attention from you. You need to grieve with them, but don’t withdraw and isolate yourself. Maybe this is a good time for a new toy or some special treats.
- Some experts recommend for the other pets to be present at the moment of putting a pet to sleep. Even hyper pets usually calm down and sense the gravity of what is going on. Being present, and being there for their friend, is usually less traumatic than a sudden disappearance.
Helps for the Grieving ProcessHow to cope
- Realize that you’re on a journey—it may take time. There is no magic formula. Just as it took time to form the special bonds you had with your dog or cat, it will take time to move forward through grief.
- Don’t deny the reality of your feelings. Pushing feelings down, or denying them, is a recipe for emotional and psychological disaster.
- Many animal clinics offer support groups for people to open up and share their feelings in an environment of understanding and sympathy.
- There are also several free hotlines staffed by trained professionals who are available to help you through this process.
- Many people find it helpful to write down their feelings in the form of a letter, or a poem, to their pet. This might seem silly, but expressing your grief is important for the healing process.
- Remember the good times! It’s okay to remember all the fun, and joyful times you had with your pet. Acknowledging, and being thankful, for the good times is essential for working through the bad times.
Helping children in this process
- It can be difficult knowing how to help a child through the loss of a pet. However, children are resilient, and this can be an important part of their development as they grow to understand the world and the cycle of life.
- Make sure you’re clear in your language. Even if you tell them that your pet “went to sleep,” this might be confusing unless you make it clear that the pet is not coming back.
- It’s confusing to say that the pet “went away,” because your child will want to know when they’re going to come back! Honesty is the best policy. Give your child the permission to grieve and be sure to grieve alongside them! This is a painful time for everyone. Your child needs you—and you need them.
- You might consider putting a special decoration on the tree to memorialize your pet. There are many ways to include the spirit and memory of your pet in this holiday season. Ask your child what ideas they have!
How to help a friend, spouse, or family member in this situation
You might have someone close to you who is experiencing pet loss, or the grief associated with it. They might have a hard time expressing their confusing emotions. How do you help them?
- You can share this article (and its recommended resources) with them.
- It’s vital that you listen and empathize with your loved one. They may be hesitant to open up fully at first, but your goal is to simply be there—to be present in their journey of grief, and to be willing to hear as much as they want to share.
- The holidays are a perfect time for giving your loved ones a gift that honors the memory of their pet. There are countless options available. But a gift can never replace your personal presence and support for the one who is grieving.
As you move forward in your journey, give yourself space and time to grieve and to heal. But, honor the memory of your beloved pet by focusing on the good times and the happy memories you shared.