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Losing a pet: Grieving the loss of a friend

Losing a pet can be one of the most painful experiences a person can have. There is much talk in today's world about unconditional love. It would be wonderful if human beings were capable of such a thing. The sad truth is that we fall short of the mark. While unconditional love is probably impossible, it is a wonderful goal and we should continue to strive for it.

Unconditional Love

In reality, the closest thing to unconditional love we ever perceive is that which we sense from our pets. Even then, there are a few conditions. After we have fed them and their other basic needs have been met, animals are unconditional. We have yet to hear that someone's dog, cat, parakeet or hamster judged them or criticized them or called them stupid.

What we do know is that people tell their most intimate secrets to their pets. What we do know is that people express their truest and deepest emotions to their pets, often much more so than they ever express them to friends or family. We know how incredibly important pets can be to people. We know millions of people who, unable to have children, have been able to have some of the wonderful and natural parental type feelings for their pets. We know an awful lot about how attached people become to their pets. losing a pet

More importantly, we know how devastating the death of a pet can be. We know how grieving pet owners are often abused by well-meaning friends who say insensitive things. The purpose of this article is to help grieving pet owners complete their relationship to the pain caused by the death of their pet. And, to assist friends of grievers with more helpful and supportive information about recovery from one of life's most significant losses.

We are all familiar with the expression that starts with; "I was unhappy about having no shoes until I met a man who had no feet..." While well intentioned, that parable sets up one of the most massive pieces of misinformation in our society. It teaches us to compare our feelings in order to minimize them. And, followed to its logical conclusion, there can only be one griever---the one with the most horrible list of losses.

Losing a pet can be devastating

Grieving pet owners, met with the constant line, "it was only a pet," are set up to compare their feelings to those they may have had when a parent or grandparent died. And if that is not enough, they are then told to "go out and get another pet," or replace the loss. No one would be insensitive enough to tell you to go out and "get another mom" if your mother died, would they? On the other hand, when a baby dies, the parents are often told, "don't feel bad, you're young, you can have other children."

Our human responses to death are normal and natural. Since we have been taught to hide or mask our natural reactions to loss, we often feel that there is something wrong with us when we experience intense feelings. Death of a pet often produces incredibly powerful emotions.

The emotions attached to the loss are normal, but society's treatment of the grieving pet owner is not normal. We must strive to normalize that which is normal. Otherwise, we continue to drive grievers' feelings underground, buried for fear of being considered "weak."

As a friend of someone who has recently experienced the death of a pet, please remember that their heart is broken. All grief is experienced at 100%. There are no half grievers. Do not try to minimize their pain.

Recovery from the pain caused by death of a pet, as with all other losses, must include the process of discovering and completing all unfinished emotional business. This process is detailed in The Grief Recovery Handbook.


Thanks Russel for Your heartful words and humor! Our dog, Bobo has died 2 days before, our hearts have broken. She were with us through the toughest 12 years of my life, and loved us with all her heart. Say Hello to your Hungarian Vizsla! With Love, Emőke from The Hungarian Grief Recovery Center

I still miss my kitty I had in 1977, who died in 1981. She was the first cat I ever had, and I'm not sure if that's why I still miss her so much, but what I liked most about her is that she didn't care that I had a disability (that was later corrected through operations), didn't laugh at or make fun of me for it. I treated her nice and she loved me in return. In that simple way, it seems like animals are nicer than some people.

I miss my FREDDIE! Wonderful cat! @ 2 years {male} old! Urinary blockage. Died after $1200 surgery! Plus the cost of the vet charging me for food and meds. I love my FREDDIE! Hope there is a kitty heaven!

Thanks for this great summary of some of the issues around losing an animal companion. Vicki, I'm so very sorry for your loss - you must miss such a loving friend deeply. You are not alone in believing that we have much to learn from animals about, well, love!

Dear Vicki and Eliza, Thank you both for participating in our comments. We'd like to add a little bit of humor that in a sweet way explains the kind of love and acceptance we get from our pets. Your dog or cat never once said you were stupid or ugly. They wagged their tail or rubbed up against your leg and said, "I'm glad you're home, now let's have some dinner and then a little cuddle." On a more emotional note, the pets allow us to access and express our most powerful feelings of love, sometimes things that we don't always feel safe enough to say to other people. In closing, let me recite my favorite prayer: "Lord, please let me be half the man my dog thinks I am." From our hearts to yours, Russell and John

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