Strategies to cope with the loss of a pet

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David R. Topor

More than a third of American households own at least one pet, and people often have close bonds with them. In one study, 13 of 16 people said they would give a hard-to-get lifesaving medicine to their pet over non-family people.

The death or loss of a pet can be a traumatic experience and result in grief and bereavement. The loss is unique in a number of ways. While pets may die naturally, through accidents, or by trauma, pets can also die through euthanasia, which often means that the pet owner must decide exactly when his or her pet is put down.

Pets can also be lost when they run away, with no opportunity for closure. Or pets may have to be given away, due to logistical or financial reasons.

There is a lack of formal societal or religious processes for grieving and mourning the loss of a pet. For example, if a pet is cremated, the ashes are usually collected at the veterinarian’s office or even sent through the mail.

And family and friends may not acknowledge the depth of grief brought on by the loss of a pet (“It’s just a dog”), the need for a period of bereavement, or the inability of a person to quickly replace the pet (“Just get another one”).

Tips to feel better

If you are grieving the loss of a beloved pet, these strategies may help:

• It is important to recognize the depth of feelings of the loss. Your pet may have been with you through the ups and downs in life and may have even helped you cope with other losses.

Give yourself the necessary time and space to grieve. Individual, group and family psychotherapy may be helpful to process the loss and make meaning of the pet in your life.

• Identify triggers for your grieving and identify ways you can cope. Triggers can include the pet food aisle in the grocery store, or driving by a special place you shared with your pet.

• Try to find ways to meaningfully grieve. This can include creating a memory book, journaling, building a memorial, or donating money or time to a pet welfare cause.

• Keep focused on your daily and weekly schedules of personal and professional responsibilities, and make sure to incorporate pleasant activities for yourself into your days.

• Explore self-help groups at a local animal shelter or ASPCA. Almost all schools of veterinary medicine have telephone support hotlines.

There are also a number of online community forums that allow people to receive support while they grieve and process their loss.

David R. Topor, Ph.D., is a contributor to Harvard Health Publications.

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